In November last year, Scott Poynton was on the verge of convincing the owner of the world's biggest palm oil company to clean up his environmentally catastrophic business. Poynton, an Australian raised on the hard-scrabble outskirts of Melbourne, thought Kuok Khoon Hong, the chief of palm oil giant Wilmar, should agree to stop his company and its suppliers from cutting down tropical forests for land to produce his ubiquitous product. But other, more belligerent industry players disagreed, and the man who controls 45 per cent of the global trade was pulling back, nervous about going it alone.
Poynton, who had been negotiating with Wilmar for months, pleaded with Kuok in a long email, reminding him of the business case for change. But then he deployed the biggest weapon in his armoury. He sent the Singaporean tycoon a cartoon by Michael Leunig.
"At the top of the tallest building in the world sat the saddest man in the world," the poem-cartoon begins. The final panel depicts a shabby angel, shining white and smiling in the mud at the bottom of the deepest pit of the lonely man's heart. "I sent this to the chairman of Wilmar, and I said, 'I believe you have an angel in your heart that's ready for change, and I saw that angel, and now you're denying it. So listen to it. And do this thing,' " Poynton recalls.
Two days later, Kuok wrote back.
" 'We're doing it', he said."
Poynton is a scientist, a forester, a rational man. He and the employees of his non-profit organisation, The Forest Trust, analyse and delve into the supply chains of the world's biggest retailers and commodity producers to reveal the environmental and social damage done by their products. Then he shows them how to do business differently. TFT's model for change has helped convince companies such as Wilmar, Nestlé, Ferrero and Asia Pulp & Paper - some of which are considered by the green movement as the epitome of environmental evil - that they can operate without cutting down forests and harming forest-reliant communities.
But in making his case for change, Poynton does not just deploy facts. As often, he reaches into the souls of those in charge using poetry, whimsy, metaphor. "Change comes from the spirit as much as the brain, and if I've got any skill, it's about spotting that person who's the key person, spotting what's going on inside their spirits, and then encouraging it," Poynton says.
Over the 15 years of TFT's life, his approach has been arguably more successful than all of the United Nations' interminable processes combined in slowing the deforestation that causes, on various estimates, between 10 and 20 per cent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions. He is talking about it now because Poynton believes TFT's model for change can work. But the task is enormous, and they can't do it alone.
For a 15-year-old Poynton, a chance encounter with the ABC's Science Show in 1979 started it all. His childhood had been tough. He was raised in Cranbourne on Melbourne's south-east fringe. From the age of six, he brought cash to the family by catching tadpoles to sell in the local pet shop for $1 a jar. When he was nine, Poynton's mother left, taking Poynton's older brother with her. He did not see her for 25 years and has not spoken to his brother in decades.
Poynton's father worked hard but could not hold down a steady job, and they moved between various towns in Victoria and NSW, often pursued by debt collectors. When the Science Show came on the radio that day in May, 1979, Poynton and his father were living in the hamlet of Ripplebrook, south-east of Melbourne. The scientist featured on that particular day was "the world's most famous forester", Richard St. Barbe Baker, who planted millions of trees in his lifetime and founded, in 1922, a conservation movement called Men of the Trees. Baker was 90 at the time of the interview, and the young Poynton was mesmerised.
"He told these terrific stories, this old guy with this fantastic British voice, and he used poetry, he used science, art. He came at people from 14 directions ... he took me on this journey." One of the stories was of Baker planting trees in the Judean hills. Beside every tree was laid a rock which left a cool, damp space for the worms who brought water and nutrients to the tree from underground. "I went away from that broadcast thinking, 'Where do those bloody worms come from? And what about the rock? Isn't that amazing?' " recalls Poynton. Before that moment he had never heard of a forester, but well before the Science Show's closing theme had played, Poynton knew he wanted to be one.
The way, though, was far from smooth. "My dad had issues with debt collectors chasing him, and half way through the HSC year we moved ... so I moved school ... and I was living in an annexe of a caravan.
"You know, this makes you focused. Do you want to get the marks to be a forester, or do you want to be a whinger, and say, 'Shit, my parents have got me living in a caravan on a camp bed and it's flooding and the rain's coming through?' "
Of his father, Poynton says, "In some ways, he was a model for how not to be. And I say that reluctantly because I loved him very deeply but, you know, sometimes I just wanted to slap him ... You hear lots of people talking about parents getting divorced as being a negative thing, traumatising, and how it destroyed their lives. It didn't do that to me; it made me bloody tough.
"I just think, 'Don't look for excuses, look for solutions.' That's what I spend my time doing".
Poynton graduated from high school with enough marks but not enough money for forestry school, so he worked for two years as a lab technician at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne. In 1984 he started studying at the Australian National University's forestry department. He worked to support himself, but also sent money home to his father, who had remarried and was still struggling.
At ANU he was inspired by working at the university's Nepal-Australia Community Forestry Project, in which Australian foresters helped farmers re-plant denuded Nepalese hills. He was also exposed to the sub-cultures that inhabited the ANU bar in the mid-1980s. "You'd go there and the foresters would be ... in the middle of the bloody thing like idiots. You'd have the lawyers ... the radical feminists and the greens ... And while everyone stayed in their corners, I used to go around talking to them all ... trying to understand them."
Poynton worked for Forestry Tasmania after graduating, then won a scholarship to Oxford for his master's degree. He landed a job in Vietnam, working on a project to find the best way to reforest a 150,000 hectare wasteland in the Mekong Delta. It had been cleared for rice plantations after the war, which caused a quick deterioration in the acid sulphate soil.
What he learnt in Vietnam gave Poynton his first glimpse of how the power of supply chains could be harnessed to improve corporate behaviour. It was September 1995 and B&Q, the UK version of Bunnings, wanted to make sure the wood that went into their garden furniture was responsibly harvested. Poynton was hired to assess the Vietnamese forest that the wood supposedly came from. He knew, though, that no such forest existed. "What I found was that the wood was being illegally cut in Cambodia and brought down river into Vietnam," Poynton recalls. "So they all freaked out."
However, he also knew of a solution: a well-managed forest that could be responsibly used to source the wood. Two years later, as discussions continued, a report by Global Witness called Made in Vietnam, Cut in Cambodia sent shockwaves through the outdoor furniture industry. "And the greens did what they do best ... hang off buildings and traumatise businesses, and I was sitting there with this solution," Poynton says.
Eventually, in 1999, he was hired by the Danish outdoor furniture giant ScanCom, which agreed to try to clean up their supply chain. Poynton's Forest Trust was signed into life and ScanCom promised that, by 2001, the business would be clean of illegal wood.
It was a brave move, Poynton says, since nobody had any idea where most of the wood came from. "The pledge really was to ... embrace the problems in the supply chain and to fix them. That was the fundamental principle ... And it's the same model today."
By the time he finished with ScanCom, the global garden furniture industry was transformed, and Poynton's skills were in demand, from Brazil and China. In 2006, though, the landmark climate change report to the UK government by economist Nicholas Stern started him thinking on an even bigger scale. Even as a forester, Poynton was horrified at Stern's conclusion (since revised down ) that 18 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions came from deforestation.
He knew that his supply-chain model could change business behaviour, but realised that he was not working with the companies causing 95 per cent of forest destruction - those producing agricultural commodities such as soy and cattle in the Amazon, and palm oil in Asia. "We're working with all these European supermarkets that have helped with garden furniture ... but 50 per cent of the items on their shelves contain palm oil, and I'm thinking, 'We're not touching that.' "
He talked to the supermarkets with limited effect, then spent two years trying to work out how the palm oil industry worked. But it was not until 2010 that a gruesome Greenpeace campaign gave him a chance to approach one of the world's biggest customers for palm oil. In March that year, Greenpeace uploaded a mock advertisement for the Nestlé product Kit Kat in which a bored office worker takes a break with the famous snack, but finds himself crunching instead on the blood-spurting finger of a dead orang-utan. Poynton asked to see Nestlé's executives and found them horrified by the ad and "very keen" to fix the problem.
Very quickly, Nestlé announced their partnership with TFT, along with a set of five no-deforestation and responsible sourcing guidelines. Nestlé used the power they had as a final customer to demand changes from their suppliers of not only palm oil, but also the pulp and paper used in their packaging. "Trillions of dollars go through global supply chains each year and customers say, 'I want this product to look like this.' Now all I've got to do is add other quality specs: 'Please make sure it hasn't got deforestation in it; that it doesn't exploit people; that it doesn't drain peatlands; that it has no child labour.' You can put whatever you like as a quality spec - you're the buyer ... And Nestlé, the biggest food company in the world, has got a lot of leverage."
Nestlé led Poynton to Indonesian/Singaporean palm oil supplier Golden Agri-Resources, which signed up with TFT in 2011, then to its sister company, Asia Pulp & Paper (APP). APP had become a poster-child for everything a business could do wrong environmentally. It had cleared two million or more hectares of tropical forest on the Indonesian island of Sumatra since 1994, and 180,000 hectares of carbon-rich peat swamp. APP had also proved itself a betrayer of promises, making and breaking a number of previous pledges to clean up its act. Greenpeace was eviscerating its business with a global campaign, and customers were deserting in droves.
Poynton started working with APP in 2011, against the warnings of friends. "They were so toxic that none of the NGOs would engage," he says. Poynton engaged anyway, but after several fruitless months broke off the discussions, telling APP they were not yet ready. "You will look good by what happens in the bush, not by nice words and PR and press releases," he told them.
His parting shot was to send the company's leaders a poem about change by American writer Portia Nelson called Autobiography in Five Short Chapters. He told APP's executives they were mired in Chapter Two of the change process outlined in the poem - repeatedly falling into the same hole and blaming someone else for it.
Five months later, in January 2012, they called Poynton back and said they were ready for change. He wanted to be sure the desire for change went right up to the level of the Chinese-Indonesian owners, the Wijaya family. Only after he became convinced the entire executive was on board did he agree to return.
"I have met evil people in the world, but they are not evil. APP's business model was the same as Australia's and Europe's business model 20, 30, 40 years ago - knock it down, plant something else, make money out of it. The problem APP faced was that the forest it was knocking down was full of Sumatran tigers and orang-utans and rhinoceroses ... and its business model had to be changed," Poynton says.
For the next 12 months, Poynton's team went carefully through APP's operations while he engaged in deep discussions at the executive level - a "dance where neither side controls the music", he calls it.
They were trying to find the answer to one big question: how could APP feed its massive pulp and paper mill in Indonesia, keeping its 100,000 employees engaged, without destroying high-conservation value forests and peatlands and potentially forgoing tens or perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars of profit.
But with Greenpeace poised to launch another massive swipe and a tranche of customers weighing up whether to abandon them, APP reached agreement with TFT in December, 2012. Poynton rang Greenpeace and said: "'We've got there! Bulldozers will be off on January 31st ... take your finger off the button'."
"Scott and his team helped us to look at our operation from a different perspective," says APP's deputy director of sustainability, Dewi Bramono. "He ... helped us ... by really looking [at] what values we want to carry forward, and how those values measure up to global expectations."
Poynton says groups such as Greenpeace can create enough pain for companies to want to change, but the NGOs have neither the expertise nor the funding model to bring that change about. "You've got to have someone like us in there moving the people," he says.
Greenpeace's Indonesia forest campaign leader, Bustar Maitar, agrees, saying: "If we're talking about making a new culture in the company, there are not many groups like TFT that can get really inside, to the level of the owner of the company." After the deal was signed, Greenpeace also signed as monitors to make sure the company was meeting its pledges.
After the APP pledge, Poynton turned his focus again to palm oil. His early meetings with Wilmar's Kuok Khoon Hong revealed a man upset by the attacks levelled at his company over forest and peatland destruction and the haze from the resulting fires that blanketed Singapore and Malaysia in mid-2013.
The pair talked for perhaps six hours over two days, and, "for at least five of those," says Poynton, "he was just downloading - about what he wanted to do, and how he was sad about what had happened".
The deal they hammered out over several months leading up to a signing ceremony in December last year ended Wilmar's destruction of old-growth forest and peatland, signed up its biggest customer, Unilever, to the same pledge, and opened the possibility of a global change in the way palm oil is grown and harvested. If one more company, Musim Mas, joins the no-deforestation pledge, then 60 per cent of the global trade in the reviled commodity will have been changed.
The deal has also revealed to Poynton a possibility that is "almost too big to get my head around".
The global supply of almost all foodstuffs is dominated by huge agricultural traders. Their business model - trading in futures and procuring supplies from any willing seller - means it's virtually impossible to know where any individual tonne of soy beans or palm oil has come from. "One of the reasons the world is going towards 6 degrees Celsius warming ... is because we allow agricultural products to be commoditised."
Wilmar is a big trader of palm oil futures, and it recognised quickly that, to meet the no-deforestation pledge, this part of its operation would simply need to be shut down. For other larger and more powerful global companies, trading is their entire business. Poynton's demand for traceability would mean they could not continue that business as usual.
Getting the traders to change is a whole new kind of challenge, which would have an effect on global markets in soy, sugar, wheat, rice, cocoa, coffee. For Poynton, though, the method will be the same: getting customers to demand better from their suppliers; working with senior executives to protect their business and continue supplying food to the world, while eliminating deforestation and exploitation. "I fundamentally believe that these people were smart enough to develop such a system of agricultural commodity trading," says Poynton, "so they should be smart enough to find a way to unstitch it and stitch it up in a different way."
In Poynton's briefcase lie dog-eared copies of the poems and cartoons - some of which he's had for 20 years - that inspire him. He hands out copies of Michael Leunig's book A Common Prayer to his staff and assesses their suitability for employment in part by their reaction to it. Like Leunig's Mr Curly, Scott Poynton is spiritual, but is as likely to pray to a duck as a conventional god. "I am not religious at all," he says. "I reckon organised religion is just as likely to choke off spirituality and the connection to nature as foster it."
He reveres his heroes, though, and recently, he sought out and met Leunig and Science Show host Robyn Williams, as well as Barrie Oldfield, a filmmaker who conducted the 1979 radio interview with Richard St. Barbe Baker (and subsequently established a "Men of the Trees" chapter in Perth) to tell them how much they had meant to his life and work.
Leunig tells Good Weekend their meeting revealed Poynton to be a man who regarded the actions of the spirit as a scientific fact. Perhaps being an Australian had something to do with his seamless melding of the two. "It's a lack of cynicism, or the refusal to submit to the cynicism of history," Leunig says.
Poynton also asked Williams for a copy of the radio program that started it all. It was just as he'd remembered, and Poynton was inspired afresh by the rock and the earthworms. "I consider myself to be the rock," he says. "I'm the guy who sits there next to the tree and provides comfort, and allows the conditions to come for change ... It's about pushing people when they need to be pushed, it's about holding them when they need to be comforted."
Poynton digs from his wallet a much-consulted copy of another poem to explain what drives him forward. It's from a book called Between Two Worlds: Science, the Environmental Movement and Policy Choice. Poynton read it in 1990 as he was embarking on his career. If Baker's ABC radio broadcast "set me free", this book "refined my path", he says. The poem reads, in part:
Man is perishable, but let us perish resisting.
And if it is nothingness that awaits us,
Let us so act that it may be an unjust fate.
"I think there's a high risk that we're all going to end up as cockroaches," Poynton says. "We're heading for 6 degrees Celsius warming; I worry that we're not going to turn it around. But we should be able to look ourselves in the eye when we're on our death bed and say, 'Well, I gave it everything.' "
Visit the Good Weekend facebook page here.