Bastien Sachet is the CEO of The Forest Trust (TFT), a global nonprofit organization working across 20 countries with over 200 staff, helping companies source products responsibly by focusing on the integrity of their supply chains. He has worked with TFT for 10 years, starting as a member manager before becoming a director in 2011. Bastien coordinated TFT’s strategy to address palm oil supply chain issues, heading up teams in France, Switzerland and Africa. He helped launch “Rurality,” an initiative that aims to empower small farmers who do not own or control their land. TFT is dedicated to removing carbon from the atmosphere, protecting habitats and preventing exploitation in global supply chains.
How did you convince a company to address sustainability and equity issues?
We are trying to inspire companies. We’re not selling a service — it’s about motivating and taking businesses along on a journey with us. We don’t come with a ready-made solution. Instead, we try to be like a doctor, understanding what’s going wrong and why. Then, with the actors in the supply chain, we can co-create the solution. We start setting up some approaches for companies and gather ideas of how to transform. Then, suddenly you’ve got others who come to us and say, “Can we do this as well?” What we find is the businesses move very closely one to another, and if one moves in this direction, it’s like a flock of birds. They all go together. Sometimes on one topic, one will lead and everyone follows. Really, it’s not rocket science. It’s just conversations and determination. Also, if you manage to work with the right part of the chain — for example, a wood supplier who is providing materials to Castorama, Crate & Barrel, etc. — you can transform several brands and chains all at once.
What’s a good example of this follow-the-leader domino effect?
For the palm oil industry, we started working with Nestlé, Greenpeace and Golden Agri-Resources, the biggest palm oil producer, to try and define deforestation. I remember when we would participate in the different conversations and meetings as part of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, everyone would say, “This is too niche; it is not possible to implement.” But, what it did, is that by coming up with a methodology to clearly define deforestation, developing practices to address it head on and making it more transparent and open, anyone was able to use it. Soon, other companies started to put this in their sourcing criteria upstream (raw agricultural product) and downstream (processing, transportation and more). Today, there are 700 big companies that have included the zero or no deforestation commitment in their sourcing policies. We’ve only talked to 20 of them, so it’s just cascading and happening on its own.
What are some of the roadblocks that TFT helps companies address?
As an example, two years ago, we were in the process of assessing mills in palm oil operations across Malaysia. We determined one major issue was migrant labor. When a migrant laborer from Bangladesh or Nepal came to Malaysia, the milling or refinery company withheld their passport. They would say, “We’re going to keep your passport so that it doesn’t get stolen. It’s good for you, no?” At the same time, the laborers start to accrue debt — if they can’t pay off the debt, or if the manager doesn’t want to give them their passport for one reason or another, they essentially become slave labor. It’s a common practice in an industry that has over 1.7 million workers. Of course, a group like us would come in and say, “You shouldn’t do that.” Well, everyone’s doing it. That’s status quo, and it’s an embedded practice that is not easily changed. So, we went deep with some of the suppliers for Wilmar International (Asia’s largest agribusiness cultivator of palm oil). We talked to them and asked, “Why don’t you give the passport back?” Many would say that due to the labor shortages, there was a deep fear of losing people to competitors. We helped them find new solutions to remove passport theft (e.g., providing a locker for laborers that hold the key) and eventually helped them address many of the other related issues around stabilizing migrant labor through discussions. Then groups like Wilmar are able to say, “Supplier A did it, why can’t you do it too?”
It seems TFT is dependent on finding the right circumstances to motivate all of the players in a supply chain to collaborate with each other to make changes.
You nailed it. I have seen that when you look at collaboration, there is economic value that is withheld within the supply chain, upstream, especially in these big commodity supply chains. But ultimately, there is little collaboration or conversation. What have the big brands done? They have externalized the cost, and they’ve said, “I want price. Price. Price. Price.” If you talk to cocoa farmers, there are people with motorcycle bags traveling with cash to a farmer to secure the cocoa for their company. This is the only conversation that takes place between the farmer and the first buyer, the first point of contact with the global supply chain. Many times, the farmer doesn’t even know where the product goes.
However, the level of supply chain collaboration between Nestlé and its first customer, Walmart, is huge. They’ll talk about finance and logistics; every niche of value is on the table. Everything is optimized to squeeze every penny out of the supply chain.
I am convinced it’s as simple as facilitating collaboration. For example, in Ivory Coast, there is a mill that supplies a refiner, which in turn, eventually supplies Nestlé. This mill sources from 600 small farmholders. The mill owner complains, “We never know when and where to pick the foods. When we go, they are rotten. They don’t look after the foods. When we get there, the foods are rubbish. My trucks are return empty.” On the other side, the small farmholders tell us, “Well, the company never comes. We harvest the foods. They say they’ll come, and they don’t come. So the food rots. We lose the premium, and they don’t pick them up.” All it took was helping the mill and farmers create a shared schedule to organize harvest, pickup and delivery.
It seems really basic, but we’ve made them coordinate. And now the mill has plans to build a new tank to store extra product for when there is too much supply. When you do that, and you foster collaboration in the supply chain, there is benefit for everyone. Quality. Loyalty. They all increase when you do this. When you look in an unstable world, when you start re-collaborating and re-fostering conversation into your supply chain upstream, it’s like watering a garden, watering grass that hasn’t had water for a year. Suddenly, it’s lush.
How does the value get translated onward to others?
Rather than trying to sell claims that they are perfect, we push companies to be transparent. The consumer, what he or she wants to know is whether you’re sincere or not. Because you’re a big company, often the assumption is that you are a liar. Consumers prefer imperfection and sincerity rather than marketing yourself as addressing these big issues with zero problems. The challenge is, how do you market that?
It becomes easier once you take these sourcing principles and make them your own. You, as a brand, must carry the principles of quality that you want to carry. Yesterday, the notable characteristic that you would sell to consumers was exclusively managed within the walls of your factory, and it was about the final product’s quality. Tomorrow, the feature you share with your consumers is more global. It includes all of the environmental and social qualities built with your suppliers but is still uniquely your own.
Where are you looking in terms of how you’re directing your energies at these two major areas of traceability and transparency within the chain itself?
Our Kumacaya initiative invites local NGOs — often groups that are attacking these big corporations sourcing materials from these communities — to become monitors and partners. We believe a system that allows locals to share feedback directly with the company first can be effective. Kumacaya groups are acting as social quality control systems, just like an alarm. I guess the big challenge still is, how do you tell a complex story to the consumer? The one who’s never been in a palm plantation and will never go in a palm plantation doesn’t even know what palm oil looks like. Managing environmental and social quality in a supply chain is something that has just started because of huge crises that we have observed. I think involving stakeholders from each part of the chain has contributed to accelerating the process by bringing more transparency.