Social license will help drive industry credibility
A recent FWPA symposium attended by 70 forest and wood products industry participants from around Australia examined the state of the industry’s social licence to operate (SLO) and identified sector-wide strategies for building the community trust and industry credibility required for a robust SLO.
The term ‘social licence’ has gained prominence over the past decade to describe the activities that, although legal, require community approval to continue, develop or expand.
All sectors of the forest and wood products industry, whether associated with native forests, plantations or imports, are confronted with issues and interest groups that could undermine their SLO.
The symposium used a mix of short learning sessions and group exercises to develop a framework for improving social licence based on four pillars: community engagement; transparency and reporting; common messaging; and new models of operating.
The introductory speaker, Ric Sinclair, Managing Director of FWPA, paraphrased Joni Mitchell to highlight the challenge with SLO: “you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone”.
He pointed out that while SLO is powerful, it is neither permanent nor predictable. SLO operates on a continuum; it can be easy to slide backwards, and it’s difficult to move forwards. It’s important not to take ‘community indifference’ as tacit support, nor to focus solely on the vocal minority.
Ric reported on some positive data from research that indicated forestry was no longer given as a key environmental issue in unprompted statements from participants. Moreover, ‘wood’ had become the dominant answer when people were asked to name an environmentally friendly material.
He stressed the importance of community perception. Trees are environmental icons, so the industry must not only be replacing them if it cuts them down, but must also be seen to be doing so.
Keynote speaker Paul Klymenko, CEO of Planet Ark, discussed the crucial role of trust in establishing and maintaining social licence. He highlighted the challenge this presents as global trust is in decline, and then he outlined specific steps that can be taken to establish trust.
Jacki Schirmer, Lain Dare and Mel Mylek, from the University of Canberra, discussed the role of stakeholder engagement in SLO for the forest industry. Their key points were that the industry needs to undertake critical evaluation of what is happening ‘on the ground’ and how this can be improved. They also identified the need to address cost-benefit concerns for local communities.
Robyn Leeson, Vice-Chair of the Global Sustainability Standards Board, discussed the dependence of SLO on transparency and reporting. She also highlighted the importance of sustainability as a factor in earning SLO.
Howard Parry– Husbands, CEO of Pollinate, discussed the need to reframe industry communications with a positive message. One strategy would be to adopt “the ultimate renewable” as a universal positive communications tagline across the sector.
On the topic of new models of operating, Robin Murphy looked at the implications for SLO of NGOs and industry partners working together. He encouraged participants to consider “unlikely partnerships” as these often had the potential to be mutually beneficial.
In summary, the symposium participants found that SLO challenges can be encapsulated in the “six Cs”:
- Community: The need for SLO initiatives to operate across all scales from local, to national and across all stakeholders was emphasised throughout the symposium, with all participants being encouraged to take the positive and progressive approach of “being the change they want to see” and acting as good neighbours.
- Collaboration: The sector is currently very fractured but demonstrates the ability to work together and recognises it is stronger together.
- Consistency: Processes and resources need to be dedicated to ensure the industry is aligned in action and voice.
- Capacity: The sector lacks the skills, experience and capacity to plan, resource and manage the tools and materials needed to build the industry’s SLO.
- Commitment: The industry must commit to measuring and evaluating impact against goals and making the data and reporting transparent and available.
- Coordination: A centralised resource is needed to coordinate and manage the complexity of forestry messages to ensure coherence and alignment.