Companies Scramble to Meet Consumer Demand for Zero Deforestation

CIFOR: Cleared LandBy Adam Wiskind

The global uptake of ‘zero deforestation‘ claims is growing, with demand for deforestation-free products on the rise. The Consumer Goods Forum, representing 400 global brands such as L’Oreal, Proctor & Gamble and Unilever, has committed to help members “achieve zero net deforestation” in their supply chains by 2020. Retailers have also stepped up, such as Safeway, with its recent pledge to source palm oil only from sites where “no deforestation has occurred after Dec. 20, 2013.”

In fact, more than 50 percent of the palm oil traded globally is now covered by some “deforestation-free” commitment. Governments, too, are taking action, with more than 60 countries signing onto the World Wildlife Fund’s Zero Net Deforestation pledge in 2013.

These pledges are significant and represent an important driver of interest and attention. How these claims are translated on the ground will determine their actual impact in terms of protecting critical forest habitat around the globe.  The next step is verified action. This is where leveraging existing responsible forestry and palm oil certification schemes can help.

What is meant by zero deforestation?

A variety of different terms are in use with different shades of meaning, leading to confusion and potentially to misleading claims.  “Zero net deforestation” means that there has been no human-caused net reduction to the total forested area within a designated geographic region.  For example, General Mills has committed to “zero net deforestation” from its sources of palm oil.  A shortcoming of this term is its inherent emphasis on quantity versus quality, allowing newly-planted forests to compensate for converted older forests.

Another term, “no deforestation,” literally means no loss of forest cover in a defined geographic area, but it is also erroneously perceived by some to mean that all timber-cutting activity has ceased.  Safeway’s “no deforestation” pledge for its sources of palm oil is one example.  Yet even protected forest regions generally allow some level of timber management.  A stricter term, “zero gross deforestation,” means that there has been no conversion of any forestland within a defined geographical area, but no major brands have yet to make this explicit claim.

The geographic area at which the no/zero net deforestation concept is applied also directly influences the substance and credibility of any such claim.  Generally, the larger the geographic region to which the concept is applied, the more suspect it is, as exploitative practices can be more easily masked by unrelated “afforestation” (establishment of a forest in an area where there was previously no forest) activities within the same region.  An excellent case in point is the United States where the total forest area has increased over the past century.  But making a claim that wood products sourced in the U.S. are “deforestation free” is a meaningless assurance.

The situation is further complicated by the fact that there is no agreed-upon assessment standard.  The ability of a palm oil producer to achieve any of these commitments is highly dependent on the extent of the area being assessed, and the ecological thresholds set to define an area as “forested” as well as what constitutes “deforestation.”  It is unlikely that the companies that have signed onto WWF’s Zero Net Deforestation 2020 have a clear understanding of whether they are purchasing Zero Net Deforestation palm oil or how close they are to meeting their overall goal.

Driving the uptake of zero deforestation

The zero deforestation concept was borne out of the recognition that the cultivation of commodity crops – especially palm oil, beef, soy and wood products – are the major drivers of tropical deforestation.  Production of these commodities can result in illegal logging and irresponsible forest conversion practices, damaging ecosystems, exploiting communities and contributing to about 10 percent of global climate change emissions.

Many of the companies pledging a commitment to zero deforestation are palm oil producers or users. Conventional palm oil production has a significant environmental footprint. According to a National Academy of Sciences study, clearing forestland for palm oil production in the early 2000s resulted in a 1 percent biodiversity decline in Borneo, a 3.4 percent biodiversity decline in Sumatra, and a 12.1 percent biodiversity decline in Peninsular Malaysia — the equivalent of a permanent loss of more than 60 species. The endangered orangutan has become the poster child of this growing threat.

The challenge in establishing effective standards

The destructive impact of unmitigated palm oil production on natural forests has prompted calls for a palm oil production standard that protects carbon-rich forests and areas critical for local communities’ livelihoods from forest conversion.  Existing standards have their shortcomings. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), the dominant palm oil standard, has been harshly criticized by non-governmental organizations (NGOs), local civil society, and the scientific community for failing to protect secondary forests, peat lands, local land rights, labor laws, and the climate.

Among current forest management certification schemes, the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) has the most rigorous requirements regarding forest conversion.  The FSC standard requires that any conversion “enable clear, substantial, additional, secure, long-term conservation benefits across the forest management unit.” In practice, this test is difficult to meet and with the exception of unique cases, conversion is effectively prohibited within FSC certified forests. FSC’s conversion requirements focus principally at the scale of individual forest ownerships rather than at the landscape scale.

Although FSC standards address plantation forests, they do not specifically address palm oil plantations nor the land management related to commodities such as beef or soy.  The standards’ protections of High Conservation Value (HCV) areas, a concept initially developed by FSC for forest protection and utilized by groups like RSPO, has been criticized as inadequate to protect biodiversity in agricultural settings.  Some further development would be needed to make the standards relevant to palm oil or other agricultural commodity cultivation.

As an alternative, Greenpeace and the Tropical Forest Trust have collaborated with a variety of stakeholders to develop the High Carbon Stock (HCS) approach. HCS is gaining recognition as an effective land-use tool for identifying plantable areas considered “conversion-free.”  However, HCS faces challenges in its implementation.  It is highly technical, and may require significant expertise and resources to meet the scale of the claims being made.

While a few major palm oil producers, such as Wilmar, have signed on to the HCS approach, other smaller palm oil traders and producers have recently signed a manifesto rejecting the HCS approach as flawed, and have commissioned their own year-long study on the topic.  Moreover, despite HCS’ transparent development process, the approach is not a formal certification scheme.  Without an accreditation system that maintains assessment standards and an auditable chain-of-custody system that tracks the flow of palm oil in the supply chain, it is not clear how HCS can be used to confidently support the diversity of claims in the marketplace.

Verification is needed

Austronesian Expeditions: Orangutans at Samboja Lestari, Indonesian Borneo

TFT is actively working with some of the largest companies to track and document their efforts.  However, the growth of zero deforestation pledges and claims in the marketplace is far outpacing the ability to confidently assure that they are being met.  Zero deforestation claims are now being applied to commodities well beyond palm oil, and to landscapes outside of the tropics, without adequate consideration of whether zero deforestation is an appropriate goal in these widening applications.

As standard bearers for responsible forest management, including the control of forest conversion in the tropics and elsewhere, existing certification schemes such as FSC and RSPO should be playing a significant role in helping companies to verify that they are meeting their zero deforestation commitments. Despite their limitations, the global recognition, transparent governance and established verification protocols that characterize FSC, and to a lesser extent RSPO, position them to make important contributions to the zero deforestation conversation.

Governments, companies and environmental organizations promoting zero deforestation should be engaging deeply with these existing schemes to make sure that they can be useful tools in the marketplace and, importantly, to avoid undermining the demand for and growth of these more comprehensive schemes.  Given their partially overlapping goals – to limit impacts to the forest landscape – all parties would seem to benefit from better collaboration.

Image credits: 1) CIFOR, Flickr 2) Austronesian Expeditions, Flickr

Adam Wiskind is passionate about utilizing markets to drive responsible use of environmental resources. He is the Chain of Custody Program Director for SCS Global Services. He is also an occasional author and speaker on emerging sustainability and natural resource issues. 

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