Environmental activist, author and Rainforest Alliance co-founder Daniel Katz talks to us about the achievements of the organisation he began over 25 years ago. He says we have a lot to do, but there's reason to be optimistic.

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Some time ago I was invited to attend the National History Museum for a fantastic gala dinner hosted by the Rainforest Alliance. Alongside prominent speakers like Unilever CEO Paul Poleman, I listened to environmental activist, author and co-founder of the organisation Daniel Katz. I felt inspired as he talked about the many achievements – and the goals as yet unfulfilled – since the Rainforest Alliance’s inception over 25 years ago.

I managed to catch up with Daniel to interview him further.

Interview with Dan Katz

… if there was ever a way I could help give a voice to the people, plants and animals of the rainforest, I would do so. Some twenty-six years later, I’m still at it. Sadly, I can’t say: mission accomplished.

What inspired you to found the Rainforest Alliance in 1986?

I didn’t actually aspire to start an organisation; I only wanted to help out. I learned about the deforestation taking place in tropical forests while in college and remember saying, corny as it sounds, that if there was ever a way I could help give a voice to the people, plants and animals of the rainforest, I would do so. Some twenty-six years later, I’m still at it. Sadly, I can’t say: mission accomplished.

What are you most proud of?

I’m most proud that the Rainforest Alliance continues to work with integrity. It’s not immediately obvious on a website or webinar, but inside the organisation, the senior leaders of the organisation are keenly aware that the issues come first, not the ego. We know that we can’t compromise the organisation’s principles and that we need to do our very best to walk our talk. Yes, its true that nothing is ever absolutely perfect. But the Rainforest Alliance really does try to pair the long view with the detailed one: we focus on every single farm and every single family as if they were the most important.

We also place far more emphasis and money in the areas where we work than on convincing others with media campaigns. I’m proud that our hearts and minds are still in the right place.

The famous Rainforest Alliance seal

The famous Rainforest Alliance seal

What sort of timeframe do you plan for?

We plan for all sorts of timeframes. At Rainforest Alliance there are strategic plans that look daily, monthly, quarterly, annually, and on a three and five year term. I personally gauge our results on a fifty-year timetable. If our efforts are still working and helping fifty years from now, then I think we will have developed a system that is worthwhile. We are now half way to my first measurement goal.

What do you say to people who accuse Rainforest Alliance of “Greenwashing”?

I’ve never had anyone accuse me of “greenwashing.” I have tracked greenwashing in the United States for years, and seen when little to no effort is taken by a company to “go green” while expending great resources to tout its grand environmental claims. When we work with companies, we do so with eyes wide open, and after all of these years, I think we are pretty good at knowing who is sincerely trying to help and who is not.

we focus on every single farm and every single family as if they were the most important.

I’m also an optimistic believer that the world can be a better place and that we are all going to need to do better to get there, since according to the United States Supreme Court, even corporations are now considered “people.”  I have no problems at all engaging with companies that authentically want to make change for the better. The ones that are “phoning it in” almost always show their colours immediately. I guess we may always have detractors who say working with companies is plain wrong. I respect that opinion but disagree with it. We all need to be working on solutions, and as a believer in redemption, I think business can change for the better. Once it does, then we are all further along on the way to supporting a sustainable planet.

What do you say to people who criticise Rainforest Alliance because farmers are not necessarily encouraged to “go organic”?

We don’t tell farmers what to do. We don’t tell anyone what to do. Working with hundreds of folks from where ever we are, we collectively develop standards and criteria around best practices.

What remains of the Fragmented Brazilian Atlantic Rainforest – the most widely deforested area in history. Source Wikipedia

What remains of the Fragmented Brazilian Atlantic Rainforest – the most widely deforested area in history. Source Wikipedia

How far does Rainforest Alliance differ from your original vision?

Because I didn’t actually set out to create an organisation, I didn’t have a long-term organisational vision at the outset. I have always hoped that one day I could lock the office door and say, “we are done here, the forests and their inhabitants are all healthy, happy and safe.” I knew that was unrealistic but that was the plan. One constant has been certification: it was one of our original tools when we started working on forestry certification in 1988-1989 and, 25 years later, we are still using it to guide our conservation activities.

How would you define your leadership style?

My leadership style? I’m a collaborator, a builder, an entrepreneur. I prefer to work with those who are self-starters. But Tensie Whelan is now the President of the Rainforest Alliance and she is awesome! I ran the Rainforest Alliance for 14 years and am the Board Chair; in that capacity I do not have day-to-day responsibilities at the organisation.

Who, in particular, are the worst culprits in the corporate world?

As Dr. Peter Raven, Director of the Missouri Botanical Garden, said at the Rainforest Alliance’s first international conference in 1987, the worst culprits are ignorance, poverty and greed.

I’m a collaborator, a builder, an entrepreneur. I prefer to work with those who are self-starters.

What are the biggest obstacles we must overcome?

I think in order to be successful more of the organisations working on environmental issues need to drop the ego and the belief that they do the best work on the planet. No one organisation is going to save the world.

We also have to stop measuring groups by budget and membership size and instead measure only by how well they/we are moving the lever toward sustainability. In the United States alone there are over sixteen thousand nonprofit groups working on environmental issues. I believe the days of the narrow vertical nonprofit are coming to an end and that we need more, much more, authentic collaboration. That means sharing a larger vision (even if we agree to disagree about specifics), a road map, and following them until our goal is reached. Of course, the goal may change and the destination may evolve, but we all have to be able to envision the kind of world we want to live in. Most importantly, we have to know HOW we are going to get there. If we don’t get the HOW part of it, we’ll always be hoping against hope to create a world we don’t know how to build.

Screenshot of Kenco’s visualisation of a lush forest to demonstrate its partnership with the Rainforest Alliance.

Screenshot of Kenco’s visualisation of a lush forest to demonstrate its partnership with the Rainforest Alliance.

… the worst culprits are ignorance, poverty and greed.

Tell us your favourite Rainforest Alliance related story.

My favorite Rainforest Alliance story? No one has ever asked me that! Back in 1987 we worked with seven radio stations across the country on a twelve-hour radio-thon to raise money for conservation. We raised nearly $400,000 through thousands of small donations, and during those 12 hours almost every major rock band either came on live, called in, or sent of a message of support. It was super cool!

Some believe that no matter what we do, we will lose a large amount of the ecosystems and biodiversity of our planet. What do you say to them?

There is no doubt that we are losing nature every single second of every day.  We have lost so much already. But our goal is still to hold the fort for future generations, for those who are growing up so much more environmentally-minded than us. We are still blessed with our amazing blue planet that feeds us every day – and I think there is still time to build a dreamy, sustainable Earth that feeds and shelters everyone. So where does that leave us? Stop wasting our time with folks who either don’t believe or don’t care. Start spending our time building a new collaborative force with a strong vision and bold, practical, and realistic steps for achieving that vision.

The number one reason we should be optimistic is the younger generation.

What is the number one reason we should be optimistic?

The number one reason we should be optimistic is the younger generation. I think they will combine the benefits of new technology with old-school elbow grease and make this planet a whole lot better.  I’m certain of it.

Urban Times has been nurturing a relationship with the Rainforest Alliance for some time now. In the past we’ve interviewd Chief of Sustainable Agriculture for the organisation in the piece Chris Wille: ‘No matter where you are, you can have a positive influence’, we’ve helped promote their their Tour Operators Promoting Sustainability programme and communications consultant Stuart singleton-White published a piece on their brilliant 2012 viral video entitled ‘How Not to Follow the Frog‘ – which just for fun – I’ve included below.