The power of collective action in Southeast Asian commodity sectors

Agriculture and forestry supply chains are often layered and complex. While individual companies can and should take steps to prevent deforestation, ecosystem conversion, and human rights violations, collaboration is also necessary to make ethical production and trade the new normal.

In recognition of this, the Accountability Framework initiative (AFi) was formed in 2017 by civil society organizations seeking to establish a unified, collective approach to achieving ethical supply chains. Now, as the AFi promotes the Framework’s application around the world, it is working closely with regional partners—NGOs and other stakeholders in key tropical producing areas—to ensure that this approach becomes reality on the ground.

In Southeast Asia, the AFi regional coalition engages with companies, governments, communities, and others to support their use of the Framework in improving supply chains. The group’s initial focus has been on the palm and timber sectors, but it plans to expand to other commodities in the future. Coalition members work together to share key information, identify priorities, and promote the Framework’s guidance to support ethical supply chain efforts by companies, other civil society groups, and even district governments.

The coalition’s ultimate goal is to address critical gaps in the mainstreaming of ethical supply chains throughout the region. “To be able to put the AFi vision into practice, we needed to better coordinate and organize our work,” says WRI Indonesia’s Rico Pratama Putra, the lead coordinator of AFi Southeast Asia. “That is exactly why we devised a collective strategy to deploy our coalition members’ diverse expertise, knowledge, and skill sets.” The strategy includes working toward collective goals around local application of the Framework, prioritizing company and landscape engagements, and sharing examples of best practices to build capacity and add value to ongoing regional efforts. In practice, the AFi coalition partners are applying this strategy in critical processes and landscapes in several ways: 

1. Thinking globally, acting locally.

While the Accountability Framework guides companies and others toward clear and consistent global norms, the Southeast Asia coalition is helping regional stakeholders bridge these norms to local contexts, practices, and on-the-ground realities. 

Local governments in the region increasingly understand that a focus on sustainability provides them with a competitive edge at both the national and global levels. For example, regional coalition member LTKL, an association of 11 commodity-producing district governments in Indonesia, is working to promote collective approaches to sustainable development, including for the companies operating in these districts. Together with other regional coalition members and partners, LTKL is mapping the Framework’s elements against local priorities, such as national certification and district action plans, as well as defining indicators of company performance within the association’s Regional Competitiveness Framework (KDSD)—its main tool for measuring and reporting on a district’s progress toward sustainability.

“Working alongside the AFi, using the Framework, means that we can build a shared understanding among our districts, market actors, and NGOs on what sustainability looks like at the jurisdictional level,” says LTKL’s Gita Syahrani. “This step is critical—allowing the districts to better support companies operating in the jurisdiction in improving their supply chain while also enabling the companies to contribute towards the sustainability agendas of the districts.”

2. Aligning and supporting effective tools.

The Framework was designed to facilitate, not duplicate, the efforts of civil society organizations, governments, companies, and others, and make it easier for them to achieve their environmental and social goals. One example is the NDPE IRF (No Deforestation, No Peat Expansion, No Exploitation Implementation Reporting Framework), a tool that was developed by a coalition of companies and other stakeholders to improve corporate reporting on progress towards NDPE in the palm oil sector. The NDPE IRF helps companies to demonstrate how their different sustainability activities—including adherence to national and international sustainability standards, participation in multi-stakeholder jurisdictional initiatives, and implementation of internal monitoring systems—can collectively demonstrate progress towards NDPE.

Proforest, an AFi coalition member and coordinating partner of the NDPE IRF, has guided the process of aligning it with the Accountability Framework, making it possible for companies and others to use the NDPE IRF to report against the best practices and outcomes specified by the AFi. The Palm Oil Collaboration Group (POCG) brings together companies and service providers that are active in the region’s palm oil sector—many of which are currently rolling out the NDPE IRF with their suppliers. As the NDPE IRF measures the sustainability attributes of the commodity volumes that POCG members source, good practices such as those defined in the Accountability Framework are progressively integrated into their supply chain management.

3. Making effective tools and good practices more accessible.

The Accountability Framework provides several tools and a host of practical information for building ethical supply chains, but these resources can only be useful if they reach the folks who need them. This is accomplished through targeted outreach, direct training, and collaboration with other existing tools and systems commonly used to manage and measure supply chain performance. For example, CDP Forests—the leading global reporting platform for companies working towards deforestation-free supply chains—has aligned its global reporting methodology with the Framework, thereby providing companies with a comprehensive set of reporting indicators that are consistent with the Accountability Framework. Companies can then likewise use the Framework’s guidance to improve their scores with CDP via their annual reporting.

To encourage more regular and consistent reporting by companies, CDP and WRI Indonesia (in the latter’s capacity as the AFi’s regional secretariat) have been hosting a series of live online guidance webinars targeted at companies in the region that are just starting their ethical supply chain journeys. Past webinars have focused on topics of greatest relevance to stakeholders in Southeast Asia—including commitment-setting, traceability, certification, and supplier management systems. The webinars have also introduced the companies to the Accountability Framework’s Core Principles and the aligned reporting indicators from the CDP Forest Questionnaire, as well as featuring practical tools from AFi coalition members and sharing sessions with companies on what implementation looks like for them. The series will continue through 2021, with sessions covering risk assessment, monitoring, and reporting. 

4. Supporting tools and resources for local communities and companies.

By virtue of their local roots, regional organizations develop a deep understanding of stakeholders’ needs and concerns. In Indonesia, for example, coalition member Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI) and its local partner, AsM Law Firm, seek to address the negative impacts suffered by communities when commodity plantations infringe on their customary territories. Concessions that deprive indigenous peoples of access to land and forests not only affect livelihoods, but also impact food security. As of 2019, only a handful of the large oil-palm plantation businesses operating in Indonesia included food security and water access as part of their human rights commitments. 

Considering that areas with large-scale concessions also face high food vulnerability, AsM developed a methodology with the support of RRI to assess company impacts on the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities, specifically food security and livelihood protection. This tool builds on the Accountability Framework’s guidance on the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities, and can be used by communities and companies alike. The methodology will be tested in pilot locations throughout Indonesia in 2021, and RRI and AsM are encouraging companies to integrate community-based monitoring into their overall monitoring and verification systems. When the tool is used jointly by a company and the community, it can facilitate further cooperation to improve livelihoods and food security in and around a concession area.

5. Addressing gaps and promoting continued improvement.

The ethical supply chain journey can be a winding road, requiring adjustments along the way to stay on track. That’s as true for the civil society organizations that are guiding companies toward ethical practices as it is for the companies themselves. 

For example, WWF-Singapore engages with traders and buyers that are active in the region’s palm oil sector, encouraging commitments and practices that halt the conversion of natural ecosystems, protect landscapes, and safeguard human rights. The organization has applied the Accountability Framework to inform and adjust its own strategies, as well as to help it monitor company progress on the implementation of commitments, including by refreshing its Palm Oil Buyers Scorecard to better align the scoring methodology with the Framework. These kinds of adjustments can have myriad benefits, helping civil society organizations improve their own effectiveness, and making it easier for companies and their suppliers to better understand expectations, work toward goals that align with global norms, and use more consistent indicators of progress in their monitoring activities. 

“The Accountability Framework serves as the backbone of our engagement with companies on their journey to sustainability,” says Octyanto Bagus Indra Kusuma of WWF-Singapore. “The AFi’s Southeast Asia coalition has proven to be instrumental in rallying like-minded stakeholders across the region around a common roadmap for action that is credible and feasible.” 

AFi coalition members are demonstrating that effective collaboration adds up to more than the sum of its parts. Looking ahead, they plan to continue harnessing this synergy as a way of scaling up their individual efforts and creating an enabling environment for ethical production and trade across the region.

AFi Southeast Asia Contacts:
Rico Pratama Putra, Lead Coordinator – Rico.Putra@wri.org
Nadine Hassan, Knowledge Management and Partnerships – Nadine.Hassan@wri.org