Blog: Ben Cooperjust-food - At the Summit - Day One

Ben Cooper | 4 October 2012

The first short session of the GMA/FMI Sustainability Summit taking place in Washington was a slightly odd affair. Billed as a Pre-Summit Expert Session, nobody seemed completely certain whether the conference had actually begun or not.

As the session, which comprised two hour-long panels on sustainable agriculture, continued it became clear that it most definitely had. Some key issues around sustainability, such as cross-stakeholder partnership, consumer communication and the growing role of social media, were touched upon, if not discussed at great length. These issues will no doubt be returned to during the course of the next two days in greater detail.

On partnership, the presence of representatives from Rainforest Alliance, the Environmental Defense Fund and WWF on the platform augurs well for the conference. To have non-corporate members making up almost 50% of the panellists on the first day suggests this conference is not going to be a self-congratulatory corporate "love-in". And it is vital they are there too. As was made clear even in the short session yesterday, cross-stakeholder partnership is key to addressing most sustainability challenges and nowhere more so than in the sustainable agriculture space. 

These three NGOs have clearly taken a positive approach to corporate engagement. Indeed, Maya Albanese of Rainforest Alliance alluded directly to how the NGO "landscape" is changing with more NGOs embracing the idea of collaboration with the corporate sector.

One is less likely to encounter radical campaigning NGOs at such events. Conference organisers are wary about having their delegates moaned or railed at, though it could make for some interesting debates. However, the likes of WWF and Rainforest Alliance are no pushovers, and will not be afraid to tell companies where they are getting it wrong.

Albanese mentioned a particular collaboration between Rainforest Alliance and Tata Global Beverages around the Tetley Tea brand which allowed consumers, through social media, to engage directly with tea farmers. This threw up an interesting divergence of view on social media. In the previous session, Rick Stott, executive vice president of Agri Beef Co., alluded to social media as a possibly risk factor when campaigns were launched against companies or industries on a sustainability issue.

Stott's concerns speak to the fact that for some time the campaign community was immeasurably better at using social media to spread their message than companies were, no doubt because the former have no alternative but to use these more cost-effective forms of communication. 

It was perhaps not surprising to hear a representative of the meat industry voice concerns over social media. Companies in that sector have fallen foul to such campaigns and are probably particularly susceptible to this form of campaigning. But overall, companies have woken up to the huge possibilities social media offer in the sustainability space as demonstrated by Tata's initiative. And there is undoubtedly potential to develop this prime opportunity for consumer engagement further.


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