Some in the cattle industry, including the Cattle Council, have apparently fallen for the good cop – bad cop con used by environmental lobby groups to manipulate industries.
In May this year the Australian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef was introduced to the beef industry as the local version of a scheme commenced in 2010 in the US with the aim “to advance sustainable production of beef”. Among its members is the environmental group WWF.
The scheme has been described by Senator Ron Boswell as an extortion racket, who warned cattle producers to be wary. A 2011 report by the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) entitled “Naked extortion? Environmental NGOs imposing [in]voluntary regulations on consumers and business” shows there is good reason for the warning.
The racket typically begins with some fairly extreme criticisms of industry practices, based on unrepresentative examples and misleading or manipulated information. The industry is accused of harming the planet, destroying the future of our children and being bad corporate citizens. There are threats of a campaign to expose the industry, focusing on its brand and image or those of its major customers.
The industry knows it’s mostly nonsense but also that it’s difficult to explain to consumers. Industry representatives therefore engage in “dialogue” with a moderate lobby group (eg WWF) which appears to have reasonable expectations and sympathy for the industry. Perhaps a voluntary code of practice could be developed, it is suggested, to preserve its “social licence”. We’ll describe it as industry best practice and establish a certification scheme so everyone can prove how responsible they are.
In the background lurks the bad cop (often Greenpeace, although various others can fill the role), making threatening noises about negative publicity, boycotts and disruptive direct action. Don’t worry about them, the good cop says. Stick with us and we’ll keep you safe.
A code of practice is developed which some are not happy about. Suck it up, their representatives tell them. It’s better than having the bad cop hounding us. Get certified and all will be well. Oh and by the way, there is a fee for certification. Here’s the invoice.
Over time the code is revised as new issues are introduced and standards raised. What about your use of nanotechnology? How about gender equality? Your unacceptable carbon footprint? And by the way, sustainability means what we say, not you.
Miraculously, some issues melt away when a higher fee for certification is agreed to. Money also finds its way into the bad cop’s coffers, well out of public sight.
Those that try to ignore the code of practice are publicly criticised and subject to direct action by the bad cop. Governments are pressured to make the code mandatory and incorporate the certification scheme in legislation, with certification a condition of government procurement. The cost of compliance is significant but there are moves to make the codes international to avoid disadvantaging exporters.
None of this is fictional. WWF is known to contribute funds to Greenpeace, while the head of research at Greenpeace has said the organisation “is willing to play the role of good cop or bad cop in partnership with organisations [to] drive organisations to partner with groups that seem more middle-of-the-road in orientation”.
The IPA report identifies “roundtables” for fisheries, forestry, sugar, cotton, soy, palm oil, aquaculture and biofuels, in addition to beef, in which WWF is a participant. At an international level WWF is known to have “partnered” with more than thirty of the world’s largest consumer brands.
WWF’s strategy is to ensure ‘acceptable standards are met by more than 75% of global purchases of WWF priority commodities sourced from WWF priority places ... and acceptable standards are met by more than 25% of global purchases of WWF Priority Places’.
Acceptable and priority places are not defined. There is also no attempt to base them on the needs or preferences of consumers. WWF sets its own standards without regard for cost or social impact, all the while maintaining its “good cop” posture. Its aim is an industry coerced into accepting WWF’s version of sustainability.
The timber industry is an example of how that can end. The Illegal Logging Prohibition Bill, recently passed through parliament, will impose due diligence requirements on importers and processors to ensure the timber they import or raw logs sourced locally were not harvested illegally. Guess which ‘voluntary’ certification standards will be reflected in the regulations?
Australia’s beef industry has outstanding environmental credentials with well over a century of export success accompanied by long term care of the land. The last thing it needs is WWF’s notions of sustainability to tie its hands and increase costs.
Companies such as McDonald’s that are a prime target for the bad cops and therefore paying off WWF will obviously have an interest in involving their suppliers. But that is a private matter and not something that should concern the whole industry. Moreover, beef producers who supply McDonald’s on their terms are entitled to expect higher prices given the increased cost of certification.
Australia’s beef producers should instruct their representatives to have nothing to do with sustainability forums and certification schemes. Like Nigerian emails they are the start of a shakedown scam from which there is just one beneficiary, and it won’t be beef.
David Leyonhjelm is an agribusiness consultant with Baron Strategic Services. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org