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Shifting gears for the new normal


People in masks, half-filled offices, and plenty of takeout. This is what normal looks like now, eight months into a year COVID-19 has taken over. This pandemic is no longer new, but the frustration I feel never gets old. There has been some upheaval in my life, the most significant one being the postponement of my wedding.

Just like me, many of us have faced changes and adapted to this way of life. But more needs to be done to ensure we’re not just putting in quick fixes to what we think is a temporary situation. We need to look at this with a long-term view and switch gears where necessary.  

Shifting focus from fieldwork to industry-wide collaboration
One major change for companies has been the sudden and almost complete shutdown of business travel. This has affected a significant number of GAR’s on-the-ground outreach activities to suppliers, communities and smallholders, many of whom are located in far-flung, rural areas.

To ensure the wheels of supplier transformation remain turning, we are re-channelling some of that GAR-specific fieldwork effort into more industry-wide collaboration, by working with customers and NGOs to improve the sustainability performance of third party suppliers.

Here are two specific examples:

Piloting re-engagement of suspended suppliers – There needs to be a credible and systematic way to bring previously No Deforestation, No Peat and No Exploitation (NDPE) non-compliant suppliers back into supply chains. We are testing a re-engagement procedure with Mighty Earth to engage and guide such non-compliant suppliers towards improved performance and re-integration into our supply chain. Our Supply Chain team advises on the policies suppliers should implement and communicate. Mighty Earth checks on the supplier performance through satellite imagery. The idea is to develop a procedure that other buyers can implement.

NPDE reporting – The industry has always been struggling to report on the sustainability performance of its supply chain which is too long, too fragmented, too complex. With support from Pepsico and Cargill, Proforest proposed the NDPE implementation reporting framework. GAR and other upstream producers are trialling the framework. The idea is to standardise reporting, facilitate data exchange between upstream and downstream actors so that all actors can monitor and report based on the same framework.

Zoom calls and webinars have become a regular feature in our work.

Adjusting expectations
This shift in operational focus requires a similar shift in expectations. 2020 was supposed to be a big year for climate targets, but the effects of COVID-19 are likely to affect the ability of nations and companies to meet some of those targets.

For GAR, fieldwork is a considerable component of sustainability transformation, so with access restrictions, it has been more challenging. Where possible, our teams have found ways to engage these stakeholders virtually, for example, using technology like Zoom or Skype to conduct remote supplier visits, with some surprising results.

Community engagement has only been possible where we have people living in the community already. This is something we are concerned about, especially in the current dry season. However, this by no means signals reduced enforcement of fire safety and prevention measures on our part. Much like how when you lose one of your senses, your others are heightened – we are ramping up in the areas where we CAN do more, such as virtual classes for educators, increasing awareness amongst the younger generation through new teaching and outreach methods, and earlier response mechanisms.

We hope to be able to return to fieldwork in the near future. Photo taken pre-COVID-19.

 Things will not return to the way they were
While we all hope to be able to return to fieldwork and a less distanced approach to our work soon, we must accept and adjust to the fact that things will never return to exactly how they were pre-pandemic.

We must leverage the innovations that have come from working remotely and further improve on them. Greater efficiency in terms of use of data tools and technology means we can potentially offer many more supplier learning sessions, and do virtual site visits to a greater number of suppliers. Similarly, efficiencies in online reporting and certification audits open up the potential for greater value to come from employees who have previously spent a lot of time on manual documentation.

Me? I’m hoping my new wedding date in January 2021 goes according to plan. But I can tell you for sure I’m not holding my breath for that honeymoon to Austria.

Click here to learn more about our work during the COVID-19 situation.

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