In the 1960’s, the oil giant EXXON used a famous advertising slogan ‘Put a tiger in your tank’ with much success to promote their ESSO branded fuel. Their use of the ever-popular tiger mascot seemed perfectly acceptable at the time. But that was before the 1989 EXXON Valdez disaster, one of the world’s most devastating oil spills, which permanently blotted the company’s environmental record. The company’s long-running advertising campaign then drew the attention of conservationists, who highlighted the plight of tigers facing extinction in the wild. EXXON responded by establishing their ‘Save the Tiger’ charitable partnership in 1995 and donated at least $ 1 million every year. This was considered purely Corporate Philanthropy, as there seemed no obvious link between oil exploration and wildlife.

Esso advert

In the present age of social media and public scrutiny of big multinationals, the story of the ESSO tiger is nostalgia. The tiger logo is no longer used by EXXON for promotions and the company has no more involvement in the ‘Save the Tiger’ fund, which is now managed by an international NGO. The reality is that oil and gas companies have been rejected as corporate partners by many green NGOs, who argue that despite some of their good CSR rankings, the industry is essentially causes lasting damage to the environment. The case of EXXON exemplifies the decline of the image of large corporations in general and the current lack of engagement between companies and conservationists. One of the world’s leading business strategists, Professor Michael Porter from Harvard University, describes the present situation as a vicious circle, where business is blamed for society’s failures and ever more restricted by new policies which sap competitiveness and economic growth, thus again contributing to societal problems.

This trend is also clearly visible in Malaysia, where the palm oil industry- once lauded for bringing social change and lifting millions out of poverty- is now under heavy attack from the international community for its role in the deforestation and environmental degradation of South East Asia. Just like EXXON, the palm oil growers have responded by engagement with environmental groups and setting up the RSPO Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil. However, unlike the ‘Save the Tiger’ fund, the RSPO is not just about Philanthropy, but about changing the entire working practices of the industry, which is a much more painful and slow process. Despite some modest successes in certifying and boosting the supply of sustainable palm oil, there is still very little evidence of any positive environmental impact. The Malayan tiger, which once roamed all over peninsular Malaysia, is now very close to extinction, with just a few hundred surviving in isolated protected areas. The question has to be asked whether it is possible for companies to play an active role in conservation? Fortunately, there are some positive examples of how this can be done.

In the case of Tiger Conservation, the latest developments in India lead the way. The Indian government has actively supported the protection of tigers for many decades. This effort is now finally showing results, not just by slight increases in the number of Bengal tigers, but also by the huge growth of the local tourism industry. Millions of Indians now flock to the tiger reserves and, despite lack of regulation and instances of harmful mass tourism, the tour operators have voluntarily started to implement sustainability standards, which aim to benefit tigers, their habitat and the surrounding local communities. The campaign by TOFT, Tour Operators for Tigers, provides hope that business and conservation can thrive in areas where environmental standards are applied, whilst at the same time providing livelihoods for the local population. This admirable goal is easier to achieve for the tourism sector, than it is for extractive industries such as agriculture and mining. But environmentalists are beginning to realise that non-engagement will not generate any solutions to the pressing issues of biodiversity loss and extinction. Their latest thinking is based on the principle of ‘no-net-loss’ business i.e. business operations with a neutral or even positive overall net effect on ecosystems and biodiversity. This means that within any given landscape, the total impact of business must at least be neutralised by landscape restoration to offset the negative impact. Such an integrated ‘landscape approach’ requires the collaboration of many stakeholders, not just business and conservationists, but also government and local communities. The idea has already taken hold in the world of finance, where some forward-thinking financial institutions will evaluate projects according to the Equator Principles, a risk management framework providing strict guidelines and standards for environmental and social impact.

Conservation practitioners are now also applying such a ‘landscape approach’ or INRM Integrated Natural Resource Management. It is a complex and dynamic process, but so far it seems the only way forward towards redefining the relationship between business and society, where economic development and environmental protection are no longer mutually exclusive. This transformation is regarded by some leading thinkers, such as Michael Porter, as ‘Reinventing Capitalism through Shared Value’, whilst others are calling it CSR 2.0, a more impactful type of Corporate Citizenship. In a Malaysian context, such an innovative and collaborative viewpoint provides opportunities for both the corporate and the non-profit sector, for example, the development of a thriving, high-quality eco-tourism sector, which has so far only taken off in Sabah, and further progress in the ground breaking work by palm oil and other agribusiness, both large and smallholders. For the interested NGOs, who are acting as guardians and watchdogs, this should present new channels of funding for their natural resource management, such as urgently needed hi-tech equipment to monitor the existing tiger population and its vital prey of sambar deer, gaur, tapir and wild boar.

Mongabay Malayan Tiger
Malayan Tiger. Photo by Rhett. A. Butler

In summary, the challenge of preserving Malaysia’s spectacular natural heritage is open to everyone, who is willing to innovate, collaborate and transform, whether in business, NGO or government.

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