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“You can’t be a CEO without a carbon agenda”: Santiago Gowland

The CEO of the Rainforest Alliance on the need for businesses to bring about real environmental reform.

By Philippa Nuttall

“What of all that biodiversity?” wrote the leading conservation biologist, Thomas Lovejoy, 12 months before he died in December 2021. “Is it to be locked away for the amusement of science with no practical value? It has in fact contributed substantially to human well-being in ways that simply are not tracked or entered into human accounting. Commodities like cacao, quinine and cassava all come from the Amazon.” 

Lovejoy is a personal hero of Santiago Gowland, the CEO of the Rainforest Alliance. The US NGO is best known for its green tree frog logo, the presence of which gently reassures us that the products we buy, for example coffee or bananas, are produced using sustainable methods which have not harmed people or the planet. Scientists refer to frogs as bioindicators – a strong population of frogs indicates a healthy environment and vice versa.

Gowland has spent most of his life living between London and the US, but he is speaking to me via video link from Buenos Aires, following his decision four years ago to return to his roots and live in Argentina. As he headed towards turning 50, he felt the pull of spending more time with family and close friends, and being in a country with “less competition; a more human side”. He worked previously for the Nature Conservancy NGO before joining the Rainforest Alliance in May 2021. “I’ve been on an exciting ride,” he said.

It has not all been plain sailing. “It can be painful living here,” Gowland told me bluntly. His children – Gaia and Max – are getting the “gist of living in a dysfunctional country”. And Gowland spends most of his time on the road – travelling for ten to 15 days every month. But the personal move and the career shift from the private sector to a not-for-profit organisation – he previously led the sustainable business teams for Nike and Unilever – was inspired by his belief that “there must be a better way”.

Similar to Lovejoy, Gowland believes that it is impossible to solve the problems of climate change, biodiversity depletion or human poverty unless people and nature “thrive together”. Sustainable solutions, as well as being good for flora and fauna, must also be “economically viable” for companies, local communities and indigenous populations. The private sector is frequently in the limelight for greenwashing, but Gowland believes many businesses are genuinely working to tackle the biggest issues of our time.

“In 2000, sustainability teams were four people. Today, 20 to 30 people are working on those areas in a company,” he said. “In the past, sustainability was seen as a cost. Today, the business case for sustainability is pretty solid, for supply chain resilience and because the cost of inaction is becoming much higher than the cost of action. The world has really changed. You can’t be a CEO without a carbon agenda and without looking at livelihoods and social justice.” Being seen to do good is also becoming a brand issue and a way of attracting talent, added Gowland. 

[See also: The forest whisperer Suzanne Simard: Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk should pay up]

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He cites the example of Unilever-owned Lipton tea. In 2007, when Gowland was vice-president for sustainable development at Unilever, the Lipton Kericho estate became the world’s first tea plantation to be Rainforest Alliance certified. Since 2016, all Lipton leaf tea has displayed the green frog logo. “I saw the impact in terms of market share,” said Gowland. “If you know a brand is doing the right thing, it’s perceived as better quality.”

To ensure all firms, not just a pioneering handful, address issues “crucial for civilisation, like stopping deforestation, regenerating soils and addressing social justice issues”, advocacy and standards to level the playing field are needed, said Gowland. Companies need to “become part of the solution…because it’s in everybody’s best interest.” 

Gowland isn’t naïve. He acknowledges the challenges involved in getting the whole of the private sector onboard with a more sustainable agenda and getting traction in countries such as Brazil where the political leadership is more interested in profit than protecting the planet. Framing the discussion around “food security” can help, suggested Gowland, referencing Lovejoy. “When you look at it from an economic perspective, [by destroying the Amazon] you are being very selfish, you’re imploding the biggest asset you have for economic and social development.”

So what’s the role of the Rainforest Alliance in all this? 

“We’re not just a certification organisation that ticks the box and says pass or fail,” explained Gowland. “Certification is a management system of continuous improvement. We assess the risks and opportunities for each landscape, each crop, each country. And we have the ability to mobilise…finance and partnerships to address risks, ensure science-based outcomes and use data to show progress.” He described the standard as a “social, economic and environmental agenda” that can inform policy making.

The Maya Biosphere Reserve in Guatemala is an example of this approach in action, he said. The five million-acre nature reserve is protected, but the Guatemalan government, working with the Rainforest Alliance, has granted 11 local communities the right to make a living from the forest – as long as they do so sustainably.

The Alliance also has a wealth of boots-on-the-ground experience. It now works in 70 countries with more than 2.3 million certified farmers and 6.8 million hectares of certified farmland. Practical experience is vital, said Gowland – turning theory into reality is complicated. In the field, “there are mosquitoes” and other headaches, “it requires commitment to work at grassroot level”.

The ultimate outcome should be much more progressive than simply tinkering with the status quo. Gowland’s vision is to “shift… from a degenerative approach to food and agriculture towards a regenerative one”.

“You don’t want to see companies setting targets that cause just a little bit less harm, but don’t take us to net zero. You don’t want to see companies kicking the can into the future and saying, hey, ‘we’re just going to do some offsets’ or ‘we’re doing this little project’. This is really nice, but this is delaying business…transformation. I hope the next frontier of value creation is…showing net positive gain…bringing people and growers, consumers and growers closer together.”

To achieve this ideal, we need to stop externalising the social and environmental costs of producing food, believes Gowland, and include the “true cost of commodities”. Engaging in a “race to the bottom” where we carry on eating bananas and drinking coffee that have caused deforestation leaves us “walking slowly towards the cliff edge” in terms of environmental and social destruction.

[See also: Why Britain’s tree planting plans are failing to blossom]

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