One of the more welcome trends in recent years is the increase in partnerships between NGOs and businesses to work on sustainability challenges. The nonprofit has the expertise and capacity to work on issues from water to land rights; companies in turn have the funds, technology or brand recognition that can help raise awareness and scale these programs. One of the latest high-profile partnerships is between Unilever and the World Resources Institute (WRI), which have worked together to further a much needed agenda: increase transparency in agricultural supply chains to stall the pace of deforestation.
WRI has long included deforestation within its body of work, which makes it a natural fit to partner with a company such as Unilever, which uses palm oil in many of its products. And the growing demand for palm oil over the past decade is one of the major factors behind global deforestation. Despite growing awareness about deforestation’s catastrophic effects, the felling of trees, mostly to create farms and pastureland, continues. In fact, University of Maryland study suggests the rate of forests lost between 2010 and 2012 was the equivalent about 50 soccer fields every minute of every day — over a span of 12 years. Last month’s Climate Summit in New York resulted in a pledge to restore 350 million hectares of forest worldwide by 2030, a massive undertaking considering that landmass is about the size of India. So, can the Unilever-WRI alliance help?
According to both organizations, their joint effort, the Global Forest Watch Commodities Platform, can help companies analyze the effects commodities have on forests. Working with additional organizations including Google, ESRI and ScanEx, Global Forest Watch uses “big data” to allow a company to fine tune its supply chain through the use of satellite maps and other information. Companies can locate areas where palm oil production has contributed to forest loss — and in turn locate credible sustainable palm oil producers. Data is also available that can help companies evaluate the effects other commodities, including soy, beef, and pulp and paper, have on global forests. And considering the risks drought and fires have had on global supply chains, a new tool that monitors fires (for now monitoring only southeast Asia) should prove useful as well.
So whether a company is finally responding to stakeholder pressure to clean up their global operations, or are assessing global risks for a sustainability report, tools such as the Global Forest Watch platform are a step towards nudging companies to clean up their act worldwide. After all, protecting forests is more than preserving wildlife and the environment; they are the world’s lungs, provide livelihoods for as many as 1.6 billion people and are an integral part of the global economy — but will not be for long if they continue to be mismanaged. And just as important, such tools as the Global Forest Watch will keep corporations accountable. The old excuse of “we had no idea our suppliers were doing this” no longer applies — information on what is happening to our planet is out there, it’s readily available, and can be tracked by anyone.
Image credit: WRI
Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010, and became its Executive Editor in 2018. He is also the Director of Social Media and Engagement for 3BL Media. His previous work can be found at The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. Kaye is based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas. He's lived in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay, and has traveled to over 70 countries. He's an alum of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California.