“Caring for nature and using our resources conscientiously are in my DNA,” says Irene Fischbach, RSPO’s new Director of Stakeholder Engagement & Communications. “I was born and raised in Switzerland in a very environmentally conscious Swiss family.” She recalls that even as a little girl, she carried a school bag with the WWF panda logo throughout her primary school years and would impatiently wait for the next WWF brochure to “read all the stories about environmental issues that had an impact on people and species around the world.”
That passion was a spark that ignited Irene’s long and stellar international career spanning over two decades in communications, stakeholder engagement and government relations in the energy and financial services industries, with strong NGO collaboration. With a proven track record in creating and disseminating convincing messages, as well as driving stakeholders towards common goals for positive impact, Irene’s work has led to mass public awareness, strategic coalitions, and policy adaptations. A graduate from the University of Zurich, Switzerland, with a Licentiate in Law, she later obtained her Masters in Public Administration with a focus on sustainability and environmental subjects at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore. Prior to joining RSPO, she worked at the Asian Venture Philanthropy Network (AVPN), where she spearheaded the network’s first virtual conference during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.
What about RSPO’s mission attracted you to work for the organisation?
Growing up in Switzerland, the topic of sustainable palm oil has always been around. RSPO was founded in 2004 as a Swiss association, and one of our biggest retailers, Migros, is a founding RSPO member. When I did my Masters in public administration in Singapore, we had to do an assignment that dealt with RSPO, wherein we simulated a multi-stakeholder environment. This is when I really started digging deeper into the topic (of sustainable palm oil) and did a lot of research to find out what is behind it, what works and what doesn’t.
I was attracted to the idea of a roundtable to bring different stakeholders with their different perspectives together to find common solutions for some of the world’s most pressing topics. I knew it was going to be challenging because there are so many perspectives involved, but I’m very attracted to challenges and I want to make an impact with what I do.
What have been your first impressions of RSPO so far?
There are a lot of very committed colleagues who are collaborating and trying to find solutions together. I was very impressed by the high level of expertise that RSPO colleagues have. Everyone is very open, it was easy for me to get to know people, even though we are working remotely. I felt very welcome.
How does your extensive track record help facilitate your new role as Director of Stakeholder Engagement & Communications at RSPO?
I have learned how important it is to engage with stakeholders, to define common objectives and find ways to move topics forward because I have seen the power of working with shared objectives — even if we represent different perspectives — and how this can lead to policy adaptation.
For example, with my last employer, Swissgrid, the Swiss transmissions operator, we worked closely with government agencies and other stakeholders to adopt policies and processes, and to accelerate the development of the energy infrastructure in Switzerland. I considered this as a major achievement, especially as we worked with stakeholders that would not have naturally engaged with us initially. It’s really important to bring everyone around the table to define shared objectives and follow a strategy to make an impact. Without the buy-in of different parties and stakeholders, the process is not going to work in the end.
What are the biggest challenges you face in your new role?
Among the biggest challenges, it’s clearly the positioning of RSPO and its credibility. There are a lot of self-proclaimed experts when it comes to palm oil so everyone has an opinion, but it’s also very hard for consumers to trust labels and make informed decisions.
I realised how critical this topic is when last year, the Swiss population had to vote for or against the free trade agreement between Indonesia and the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) states, and the referendum only narrowly survived with a very small majority who voted for this agreement. The main reason why voters rejected it was because they didn’t believe in sustainable palm oil. Even if this trade agreement was about many other topics, palm oil is so much in the mind of the Swiss population, and there you could really see the trust that is missing towards businesses who produce or buy palm oil.
RSPO standards are very high, but there is still an issue with regards to trusting that we are able to enforce our own policies and standards. This is where a lot of communication is needed on what we do to implement our standards and that we have the right mechanisms in place to ensure that our members adhere to them.
What are your top priorities to turn these significant challenges into opportunities?
We need to get this narrative about the value we offer right, and explain to stakeholders and investors, governments and businesses why making sustainable palm oil the norm is important, and how they benefit if they become RSPO members, get certified and support sustainable palm oil.
Another priority is to come up with a targeted stakeholder engagement strategy. We want to work more systematically with our stakeholders, then work closer with governments and government agencies around the globe, so it’s one of my priorities to establish a government affairs unit and implement a public affairs strategy.
All these tasks take time; it takes several years to build relationships, they do not just come out of the blue. We probably won’t see the impact very quickly but then eventually, step after step, the benefits will emerge.
I may be idealistic but I’m not naive, so I also think that I’m able to define and implement realistic steps to fulfil these goals. There’s nothing bad about being idealistic because I think that much more is possible than we probably think.