Companies know they need to do some serious work to reduce the harm they inflict on the environment, and better support the workers and customers who make their business possible. But what’s less obvious are exactly what that means in practice: What environmental and ethical goals are bold enough? Along what timeline should they be implemented? How can progress be measured and demonstrated? And how do they match up with commitments that other companies are making?
A new initiative wants to take these ambiguities out of the environmental and ethical standard-setting process for companies. Called the Accountability Framework, the program was designed by a broad set of partner organizations including the Rainforest Alliance, The Nature Conservancy, Verité, the World Resources Institute, and the World Wildlife Foundation. The AFi is not a formal designation or certification that companies can pursue, but rather a structure that companies can follow and measure themselves against to ensure that their environmental and ethical aims are accomplishing what they are meant to.
The AFi, says Jeff Milder, professor at Cornell and director of programs at the Rainforest Alliance, is meant to act as the Rosetta stone for environmental and ethical commitments. In other words, the AFi is designed to apply across different contexts, and standardizes the different metrics and requirements of various global initiatives on climate and labor justice—including the Paris Agreement and the UN Sustainable Development Goals—into a single, comprehensive framework. The AFi includes everything from universal standards for supply chain oversight, respecting the rights of indigenous communities, standardizing definitions and metrics for progress, and including smallholder suppliers in supply chains to support economic justice and ethics.
To illustrate what the AFi would do, Milder cites the fact that both McDonald’s and Bunge, a large agricultural company, have set goals of eliminating deforestation from their supply chains. But who’s to say that the two companies’ definitions of deforestation are the same? What if they choose to define even the term “forest” differently, or differ radically in their timelines for implementation and methods for progress reporting? The lack of consistency across corporate, nonprofit, and government pledges of the sort make it difficult to assess global progress in any meaningful way.
Using the AFi, companies, governments, and nonprofits can figure out where their commitments need to be updated to meet these comprehensive standards, and how they might need to accelerate implementation or broaden the scale of their goals. Entities that wish to incorporate the framework into their environmental and ethical aims can work with the AFi coalition to assess their current programs against these universal standards, and follow the guidance for reporting progress. The goal of the AFi, Milder says, is not to set up participating entities in competition with each other, but rather to make it easier for governments, companies, and nonprofits to learn from each other and hold themselves accountable to a set of broadly understood standards that are sorely needed in the push for environmental and ethical protections.