Glenn Hurowitz was 10 years old when global warming first hit the headlines. He remembers being at tennis camp, up 4-1 in a set, when he suddenly couldn’t concentrate on the ball in front of him—he had become distracted, thinking about the impending fate of the planet.
The thought has preoccupied him ever since.
Now, Hurowitz is a leading environmental activist, fierce advocate for anti-deforestation policies, senior fellow at the Center for International Policy, and author of countless articles and policy papers on environmental issues. At age 10, though, he felt powerless to save the massive entity that is the global environment.
This feeling of frustration lingered through most of his life—until his senior year as a Yale undergraduate, when he started to get involved with grassroots environmental campaigns on campus through Yale Student Environmental Coalition. First, he participated in an initiative called “Eco-Pledge,” getting students to vow to refuse employment from companies that polluted heavily. Student activists protested both on campus and in New York City. There were polar bear costumes involved: grassroots campaigning at its best.
That same year, Hurowitz and a friend co-founded Kyoto Now, which urged universities to align their commitments to those levels established by the Kyoto Protocol. They organized several initial rallies at Yale, but it was at Cornell where the real momentum caught on and kicked off a movement that grew to include thousands of students and resulted in substantive administrative change.
After graduating with a Political Science degree, Hurowitz went overseas to travel for awhile. “I was working on an organic farm and picking vegetables and having a great time,” Hurowitz recalls. “But then Bush got elected. I decided to return to the U.S. and save the planet from him.”
So Hurowitz flew back and began a fellowship with Green Corps, a one year program in environmental organizing. The fellowship trains young activists on grassroots organizing, fundraising, and coalition building, and plunges them into real-world campaigns. As a fellow, Hurowitz worked with Greenpeace in California on a clean energy initiative; fought for environmental justice in Miami Beach; and spent a winter in North Dakota persuading senators to commit to protecting the Alaskan Arctic Refuge.
“In North Dakota, one person can do a lot,” Hurowitz laughs. “I actually got elected to be a delegate to the North Dakota State Democratic Convention!” By the end of his time there, both North Dakotan senators had pledged their commitment: when the bill came to Senate, the vote was 51-49. Those two senators had tipped the scale.
In that one year, Hurowitz also learned the fundamentals of environmental organizing on a broader scale: polar bears and petitions only work when combined with shrewd strategy and active engagement with citizens, organizations, and politicians.
“You have to really understand the place where you’re working and calibrate your methods to the concerns of people you’re working with,” Hurowitz says. In North Dakota, that meant hanging out with congressmen, recruiting prominent Democratic representatives to ask constituents to sign posters, and appealing to the economic interests of farmers and ranchers.
Today, Hurowitz is applying these grassroots organizing principles in a more global context: As founder of the international non-profit Forest Heroes, Hurowitz has spent the last three years committed to ending rainforest deforestation.
Deforestation is a dangerous, human-driven trend with a devastating scope: According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, almost 18 million acres of forest are destroyed each year to make room for other uses.
Trees affect almost every aspect of our ecosystem: without them, soil erodes, water becomes more polluted, species like orangutans, tigers, elephants, and rhinoceroses are driven to the brink of extinction.
Deforestation both lessens the amount of carbon stored in trees, and releases nearly a billion tons of carbon dioxide into the air each year, according to 2010 estimates. It causes 15-20% of greenhouse gas emissions, says Hurowitz, and accounts for 6-17% of anthropogenic carbon output. What’s more, trees affect almost every aspect of our ecosystem: without them, soil erodes, water becomes more polluted, species like orangutans, tigers, elephants, and rhinoceroses are driven to the brink of extinction. “Deforestation is one of biggest threats to biodiversity and climate in the world,” Hurowitz says.
The biggest offenders in deforestation are agricultural companies who use clear-cutting, quick-burning, or slash-and-burn techniques to clear land for crops. And the biggest of those agricultural culprits are in the palm oil industry. Suppliers destroy lush rainforests and carbon-rich peatland and replace them with plantations.
Palm oil might sound like an obscure resource, but it’s used in everything from cookies to gas tanks to bath soap. Targeting the palm oil industry allows Forest Heroes to compel a large-scale anti-deforestation movement that it hopes will eventually spread to other industries.
Thousands of major consumer companies source palm oil, primarily from Indonesian and Malaysian suppliers. “Unilever, one of the biggest consumer company users of palm oil, only uses 3% of the world’s supply,” explains Hurowitz. “Even if you got Unilever to do the right thing, it would have a fairly small impact.”
There are also hundreds of suppliers, most of whom consistently practice environmental degradation without restriction. “Even if you persuaded the largest producer in the world to eliminate deforestation, that only affected 5% of supply,” Hurowitz adds. So Forest Heroes began researching the middlemen: a small group of six agricultural traders that connect the global network of buyers and suppliers. Of the six, they identified Wilmar International as their primary target: it trades 80% of the world’s palm oil. “We felt like if we could change Wilmar, we actually could change global agriculture,” Hurowitz explains.
People thought it couldn’t be done, he says. Wilmar was too conservative; too opaque. They had resisted any kind of sustainability efforts in the past, and were rated dead last in Forbes’ list of world’s largest companies in sustainability, behind ExxonMobil, Coal India, and China Coal.
But on December 5, 2013, thanks to efforts of Hurowitz and his colleagues at Forest Heroes, Wilmar International officially published a “No Deforestation” policy pledge, saying they would no longer source from any palm oil producers who engage in deforestation practices.
Groundbreaking change like this happens through a concentration of forces, Hurowitz explains. Policies are pushed forward through organizing and campaigning, but also through the same sort of face-to-face encounters and savvy diplomacy he employed in North Dakota. “We’ve tried to create a perfect storm,” he says. “We’ve tried to rally consumer companies, media, investors, and to focus on a handful of companies that have the power to change global agriculture.”
In a single year, the world’s palm oil rose from 5% being covered by strong no-deforestation policies, to 96%. “That was a real revolution,” Hurowitz says. “Something that nobody thought could be achieved.” More and more large companies are listening. Following Wilmar’s lead, ADM and Bunge—together, three of the five largest agriculture companies in the world—have all extended their deforestation policies from palm oil to soy.
“You have to really understand the place where you’re working and calibrate your methods to the concerns of people you’re working with.”
But the work is far from over. “The challenge now is that despite the progress by major companies, the Indonesian government’s enforcement of laws has been weak,” Hurowitz says. “We’re concerned now about rogue companies who are trying to undermine the actions that the largest sector of palm oil companies are taking.” Forest Heroes’ work depends largely on the private sector’s belief that sustainability leads to good business—if smaller companies can get away with deforestation without losing customers and investors, larger companies will lose any incentive to reach and maintain sustainability goals.
“We’re doing research: who’s financing [the rogue companies]? Who’s purchasing the palm oil they sell?” Hurowitz says. “Then we meet with them. We make sure they know that if they’re continuing to destroy the rainforest, consumers aren’t going to want to buy their products. Banks will see that as a liability and won’t invest.” If private outreach doesn’t work, Hurowitz says sometimes a public campaign is the most effective way to make companies understand the risk incurred by deforestation and environmental destruction—both to their brand and the world.
Hurowitz’ team communicates to stakeholders that palm oil can (and should) be cultivated sustainably, as can soy products and cattle. But understanding that is only the first step: businesses have to make the conscious effort to change their buying criteria, and those that have made commitments must be incentivized to keep them. Certification programs like the Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil’s recognizes producers whose practices adhere to their strict sustainability criteria, and the Rainforest Alliance has supplementary guidelines, putting their seal on products that use materials sourced sustainably.
But RSPO certifications have not always been rigorous enough in their criteria. In Hurowitz’s Grist opinion piece, “The Death of Sustainability,” he laments the RSPO’s decision not to remove the “sustainable” certification from palm oil produced through rainforest deforestation and peatland development. He calls the move “patently absurd Orwellian PR: If something produced through wholesale destruction of tropical rainforests is considered ‘sustainable,’ the word has lost any meaning at all.” But in August 2015, RSPO published a proposed update to their “Principles and Criteria”: an addendum that would include “No Deforestation and No Planting on Peat,” encouraging producers to exceed the RSPO criteria they’ve already met.
The forest is far from safe, but there are people and organizations watching to make sure it won’t yet disappear.
Hurowitz left his role as head of Forest Heroes early last year, but since the first of January he has been collaborating with Deborah Lapidus, a former Forest Heroes campaign director, and Henry Waxman, former chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, to launch a new environmental campaign platform designed to support more planet-saving initiatives.
Groundbreaking change like this happens through a concentration of forces. Policies are pushed forward through organizing and campaigning, but also through face-to-face encounters and savvy diplomacy.
Together with a coalition of conservation organizations and government committees, they’ve been pushing to create marine protected areas in the ocean surrounding Antarctica, where commercial fishing threatens the resilience of the regional food chain. Animals like blue whales, penguins, and seals all rely on krill—a small, shrimp-like animal—as the basis of their diet. Because of this, fishing for krill is banned in most other places in the world. But in Antarctica, krill are harvested by Walgreens, Target, and Safeway for use in Omega-3 supplements, and shipped thousands of miles by Chinese fishermen for livestock feed. If krill continues to be depleted, Hurowitz says, the food chain will collapse beneath the melting ice caps.
Closer to home, the team also hopes to tackle the myriad of other environmental issues currently surrounding big agricultural companies in the United States. “Part of the problem is that so much of the agriculture we produce isn’t just to feed people, it’s to feed animals and cars,” Hurowitz explains. Around 40% of the U.S. corn crop is diverted to ethanol, and about another 40% goes into livestock feed. Because of this, Big Ag in the U.S. is, in a word, big. “We’re trying to get big U.S. agriculture companies to use precision fertilizer deployment, and fewer hazardous pesticides; and we’re trying make sure the last remaining native grasslands are protected,” Hurowitz says.
Since his youth, Hurowitz has been preoccupied with the uncertainty of the planet’s future. But after years of environmental organizing—catalyzing perception change; activating corporate responsibility; and saving forests, fields, oceans, and animals—Hurowitz has steadily worked to build a future other children will look forward to.
Learn about Deforestation:
About Glenn Hurowitz:
Glenn Hurowitz is a leader in transforming global agriculture to protect forests and human rights. As Chair and Founder of the Forest Heroes campaign, he led an international initiative that has resulted in the overwhelming majority of the world’s major palm oil traders adopting comprehensive “No Deforestation, No Exploitation” policies. More recently, he has focused on extending these policies from Southeast Asia to Latin America and Africa, and commodities including soy, sugar, and rubber. Glenn co-founded Chain Reaction Research, which provides financial institutions with in-depth risk analysis of companies that may be linked to deforestation. He has worked on a number of initiatives to break the link between pollution and economic growth, with a focus on the aviation, bioenergy, and climate finance. He previously facilitated the world’s largest private sector investment in forest conservation. He has also served as the Director of the Tropical Forest and Climate Coalition, an alliance of Fortune 500 companies and conservation organizations. Glenn advises governments, major philanthropies, non-profit organizations, and financial institutions on climate strategies, with a focus on agriculture and land use. He is a Senior Fellow at the Center for International Policy, and a graduate of the Green Corps environmental organizing fellowship and Yale University. Follow him on Twitter @glennhurowitz.
Listen to Hurowitz:
- Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO)
- Unilever’s Commitment to sustainably source palm oil; its Palm Oil target reporting; its Press Release about tracing palm oil sources
- Union of Concerned Scientists 2015 Palm Oil Scorecard
- Sustainable Sourcing Guide for Palm Oil Users (WWF/Conservation International)