Jason Clay: A conservationist looking to help businesses find sustainable solutions

Jason Clay, executive director of the World Wildlife Fund's Markets Institute. Photo by: WWF

Jason Clay has worn many hats throughout his professional career, but perhaps none of them is more important than the one he wore as a kid growing up on a farm in Missouri.

“I grew up on less than $1 a day for 15 years as a farm kid in the U.S.,” he recalled. Growing up in rural Middle America made him a conservationist. “I hunted three days a week from the age of 7. I knew which animals to shoot and which animals to leave to reproduce so we have more in the future. You know that stuff instinctively.”

Fast-forward several years to the late 1980s when the farm kid from Missouri met a man named Ben at a Grateful Dead benefit concert. The two exchanged ideas on environmental conservation and within a year the Rainforest Crunch ice cream flavor was in grocery store refrigerator aisles throughout the U.S. The nuts that went into the ice cream were sourced from the Brazilian Amazon as a way to demonstrate that tropical forests can be more valuable as standing sources of food supply than as deforested pasture land. Ben was, of course, Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream.

Clay, meanwhile, has gone on to push for conservation in a host of professional capacities. After working on human rights, refugee issues and famine for more than a dozen years, he is now executive director of the World Wildlife Fund’s new Markets Institute, which launched this month to advance conservation through sustainable food production.

The institute is designed around a theory of change that Clay has developed throughout his career in environmental conservation.

Ice cream aficionados might sadly recall the rather short-lived tenure of Rainforest Crunch. Ben & Jerry’s discontinued the flavor a few years after its 1989 launch, despite its lucrative success early on. It was a failed venture, Clay noted, because the people who were gathering the forest nuts weren’t the same ones who were cutting down the forests. And the people who made money from collecting the nuts were different than the ones who made money from deforestation.

They were essentially attacking the wrong drivers. What they should have done instead was address the actions of the large multinational food companies and the trading bodies from whom they procure their supply.

Clay and his team of researchers have identified 15 globally traded commodities that are produced and sourced on scales so large that they can have a dramatic impact on ecological sustainability. The list includes agricultural goods such as beef, coffee, cotton, palm oil, sugar cane, soy and tuna. The team calculates that between 300 and 500 companies buy about 70 to 80 percent of each of those 15 commodities. The Markets Institute’s theory is that by engaging the largest 100 of those companies on sustainability issues, they can have a significant and scalable impact on global food production.

The institute’s work is largely geared toward the private sector — raising awareness about the issues affecting the long-term viability of the core products they source in order to spur collective action. The idea of collective industry action is one course to address the challenges of environmental conservation, food security and many other global development priorities. But it can often get tripped up by concerns of compromising competition. Clay and his team are framing food sustainability as a pre-competitive issue — a matter to be collectively addressed before companies even getting to the stage of direct competition.

Their advocacy work is meant to stir the pot, to inject issues into the public debate that often go unaddressed. First on their list of advocacy areas are issues that relate to potential food production shortfalls and illegal actions in global value chains.

The Markets Institute calculates that there is a roughly $200 billion gap between the current supply of sustainably certified food products and the projected demand for them by 2020. The estimate is an imperfect calculation, but is based on the various public pledges that major food companies have made to source sustainable food products over the next five years. But the general trend they point to is that, with the exception of coffee and cocoa, future demand for sustainable commodities far outstrips current production.

The institute will also look at legal issues including whether companies have rights to farm the products that they’re selling and the degree to which trafficked or slave labor has factored into food production.

They are deeply probing questions for businesses, but Clay points to the precedents of industries that have already addressed sustainability at a pre-competitive level. For example, the in 2012 the 15 largest salmon farming groups, who account for nearly 70 percent of global production, formed the Global Salmon Initiative. They have committed to independently certify that all of their production meets sustainability standards by 2020 and have established open data sources to share information about farming impacts, payback periods and return on investment metrics.

“They are all super competitive when it comes to selling,” Clay said. “But when it comes to production, they know that the reputation of one company hurts the entire industry.”

The Markets Institute’s strategy is to raise questions, convene consistent dialogues among the largest food businesses and then let those entities sort out the solutions themselves. For example, the institute might bring attention to the shortage of sustainably sourced food, but it is up to businesses to decide on the most effective course for boosting future production.

The institute is trying to pivot the traditional ways in which nongovernmental organizations interact with business to promote change — by encouraging results rather than advocating specific standards.

“The traditional approach is telling people what to do as opposed to helping them understand how to think,” Clay said. “We’re trying to get individuals within companies to understand how to think about problems they will be increasingly facing.”

In doing so, Clay describes himself as an “extrapreneur,” a honeybee who cross-pollinates industry ideas.

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About the author

  • Naki B. Mendoza

    Naki is a former reporter, he covered the intersection of business and international development. Prior to Devex he was a Latin America reporter for Energy Intelligence covering corporate investments and political risks in the region’s energy sector. His previous assignments abroad have posted him throughout Europe, South America, and Australia.

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