Meet the Eco-Business A-Listers: Simon Lord, sustainable palm oil proponent

Dr Simon Lord helped Sime Darby Plantation, Malaysia’s largest palm oil producer, to set an industry benchmark in supply chain transparency in 2019. He tells Eco-Business why NGOs are necessary, and what he would have done differently if he could turn back time.

Dr Simon Lord
Dr Simon Lord wanted to work in the zoo when he was a child. Image: Eco-Business

2019 marked a high point in Dr Simon Lord’s 35-year career, but the chief sustainability officer of palm oil producer Sime Darby Plantation continues to keep his feet firmly planted on ground.

Asked what he would do differently if he could start over again, Lord said he would have tackled transparency in his company’s supply chains even earlier.

This is in spite of the fact that he helped his employer, Malaysia’s largest palm oil producer, to set an industry benchmark in supply chain transparency with an open-access platform launched in May. The Crosscheck platform allows the public to trace the sources of Sime Darby’s palm oil to the mill level, and seeks to assure buyers of its No Deforestation, Peat and Exploitation (NDPE) pledge.

“That was one of the high points not just of the year, but of my career,” Lord told Eco-Business.

The Briton’s efforts to promote sustainable palm oil won him a place on the inaugural Eco-Business A-Lista who’s who of Asia Pacific’s most influential corporate sustainability executives who have done the most to make business less harmful for people and planet over the last 12 months.

An “eternal optimist” with a wry sense of humour, Lord talks about the hardest thing about his job, learning from non-governmental organisations (NGOs), and his unsustainable guilty pleasure in this interview with Eco-Business.

What sparked your interest in sustainability?

When I was a little boy, I always wanted to work in a zoo. I just thought that was the coolest thing to do.

And I guess that steered me into wanting to learn more about biology and, in particular, ecology. I did my degree [in applied biology] and then a PhD [in environmental science] and I was a reasonable researcher—but that was about three centuries ago.

I later took over a research station in Papua New Guinea for New Britain Palm Oil. I realised that more and more of what we were doing in terms of agronomy and looking after the crop had a strong environmental component. And around about 1999, it really was to the fore in my thinking, and that’s the shallow end of how I started out in sustainability.

Since then, I’ve learned lots about the social landscape as well as the physical.

If I had the chance to do it all again, I would have made more of a stab at transparency and traceability earlier.

What is the hardest thing about your job?

The hardest thing about my job, is being able to move with stamina, weight and agility between different subjects in a single day. I have to force myself to create space to give these issues the time that they deserve. And it’s not very easy.

When people say, ‘what’s your typical day?’ I can’t really say, because each day—and I’ve been doing this for 35 years—is actually so different and such a collection of issues to deal with.

What is the most important thing that you did in the past year?

I think the most important thing for us was to realise that traceability and transparency of supply chains were absolutely key to our overall strategy.

Last year, we completed three years of mapping work to identify where orangutans, elephants, peat and forested areas are, and overlaid those maps with our supply chain data. We call the platform Crosscheck, because we invite people to cross-check with our supply chain.

And that led us to put out a supplier policy that said, ‘we draw the line on deforestation’. I think that was one of the high points not just of the year, but of my career.

What is the biggest question that CSOs had to ask themselves in the past year?

I think every CSO has got a set of issues “at home”—things like waste, water use, energy—and “away”—things that happen in the social and physical landscape, in the upstream and downstream.

I think climate change in all of the aspects in agriculture is something that we have to get our heads around. Where can we be part of the solution? How are you solving and contributing to minimising emissions and, ultimately, climate change? And how are you structuring your company to meet what are going to be catastrophic changes to this planet?

Never surrender. A great deal of wit always helps.

What is the most effective way to persuade your CEO to take sustainability seriously?

I always remember somebody saying to me that if the answer is no, then you’ve asked the wrong question.

Never surrender. A great deal of wit always helps.

You need to always relook at what their [the CEO’s] view is of the company, and then reformulate what you’re trying to do and demonstrate that what you’re suggesting is going to add value to the company and, therefore, going to have longer term or short term benefits.

If you could start your CSO role again, what would you do differently?

I would have tackled transparency in the supply chains much earlier. We have five main strategies and flawlessly implement what we’ve already committed to, such as our Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil membership and the Rainforest Alliance Sustainable Agriculture Standard.

We lead in new approaches, bring our stakeholders along on the journey, manage our supply chains, and then reimagine sustainability to differentiate ourselves from our competitors.

If I had the chance to do it all again, I would have made more of a stab at transparency and traceability earlier.

Who is your sustainability role model?

I got into this job when very few people were doing it. So, there were no pathfinders or trailblazers, but I’ve met some truly interesting people along the way.

One of them is (co-founder of sustainability non-profit Forum for the Future) Sir Jonathan Porritt, who stands out as being someone with solid advice. The other the co-founder of Rainforest Alliance, Chris Wille. From both of them, I gain such strength from listening to their advice and guidance, and how they see the world.

Aside of that, there’s been a plethora of non-governments organisations (NGOs) as well as corporates which have really helped me. But I think I’ve learned more from the NGOs, because I find that they have a voice and they’re necessary and they’ve actually guided me a lot in what I do.

What is your unsustainable guilty pleasure?

Well, I think a lot of what I do is unsustainable. I particularly like toy soldiers, and I have a collection of toy soldiers which are made out of lead. And I’ve been collecting them for as long as I can remember. Maybe in a sense, I’m creating a lead store for the world, I don’t know. But in reality, I just like playing with toy soldiers.

Why will you never be replaced by a robot?

The robot might get bored, actually. A lot of what sustainability executives do is not just repetitious, but mind-numbingly tedious. I think robots, particularly if they’ve got artificial intelligence and machine learning capabilities, might well say, ‘Hang on, this is a waste of time for me’, because we [CSOs] spend so much time in meetings.

Which buzzword in sustainability could you do without?

There’re so many. We used to play a game at conferences called sustainability bingo. We’d write down all the words that were circulating at the time, and cross them out every time they were used.

“Holistic” really irritates me, because it’s used all the time. And now, of course, even the word “sustainability” is often used in the wrong context of what we’re talking about.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 11-year climate deadline to reduce emissions to avoid the worst consequences of climate change. Will we make it, or are we doomed?

I think we’re going to face catastrophic circumstances. And I think people don’t realise, even with a small incremental change, just how it’s going to affect the way that we grow (crops). Working in the agricultural sector, I think we feel it a little bit keener, and we see it more directly.

I’m an eternal optimist. I feel that just because it gets tough, it’s not enough to just throw your hands in the air and say oh, it doesn’t matter. It does matter. I’m a Christian, so I don’t believe that God put me on this planet just to be a bystander; I have to do something.

So even if it’s a forlorn hope, even if all the evidence points to the fact that we’re not going to avoid a catastrophe, I don’t think I’d give up anyway. 

Dr Simon Lord was one of nine sustainability executives selected for the EB A-List this year. Read our other interviews with the A-Listers here

Eco-Business will be calling for nominations for the 2020 A-List next September. Do you know a corporate sustainability leader who is really moved the needle for their business and industry? Bear them in mind for our next call for nominations.

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