Unknown and unknowable

Today at one of the CISL sessions, a speaker shared a quote. I don’t remember all the details, but the quotes were basically saying that high-quality management should be accountable for unknown and unknowable issues. It was a bit of lightning to me.

Big financial institutions and corporates are making lots of noise on how their strategy and business are aligned with sustainable development goals. They sign collaboration, partnership, working groups that attract lots of media attention or even to generate media attention. But what’s real actions and impacts behind these?

The above quote made me realised that we were somewhat blinded by this thinking of ‘what’s measured can be managed’. I am sure when Bloomberg said it at his TCFD speech, it was meant to give a positive and ambitious message for us to strive more. But somehow large institutions managed to take this quote and use it as an excuse to hide behind this ‘unknowable’ argument, turning it into ‘we can only manage what is measured’.

We put a strong emphasis on traceability, and I genuinely believe that it is a critical initial step. If Nesles wants to improve what’s going on in their supply chain, they first need to know where they have control over. But this is only a preparation for real sustainability actions. Plam players engage engineers to use satellite images to map out their plantations with precise coordination, work heavily with local NGOs and finally publish 100+ page sustainability reports articulating all their efforts in traceability and the local community.

But hang on a second. Do we really need to trace them? Isn’t it again used as a way to defend large corporates when local communities and NGOs attack them? So they can say ‘no no no, it is not our plantations, it is neighbouring plantations, and I have nothing to do with that fire!’ (btw, this is a prevalent statement that you will find from plantation companies). Whether we know the link between the big brands and the plantation or not, we all know where the problems are. Wouldn’t it be better to invest those efforts and capital, and use our brain to work on the local issues directly? We can tell which part of the plantation is now burning, (we can even smell it and touch it); we can find people on the ground who are crying because their land right was breached; we can see and speak to children and women who are suffering from hunger, abuse or lack of opportunities in life. I feel that it is a bit like running to a river, 10km apart, to get access to sufficient clean water to put off the fire in front of you. Do we have time for this?

I know this is a bit wild, and I know that dealing with local issues might not be the role of global companies. (something to question though, given some companies have extreme power over local governments in those areas). I also should admit that I am still promoting traceability to our clients (so this blog will vex them); we are even giving discounts to the loan when they progress on traceability targets. Nevertheless, this was a good reminder for me. Traceability should not be a final goal and has meanings only when it comes together with active and effective sustainability actions.

I have no conclusion at this moment, and I don’t think I should push for a premature conclusion. Otherwise, I will become a harsh, judgemental voice. So, I will leave it here.

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