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Leon Kaye headshot

Reports Praise Corporate Progress on Deforestation, But Much Work Lies Ahead

By Leon Kaye
Deforestation in the Brazilian state of Acre.

The impact of the global palm oil industry on human rights and deforestation has inspired many NGOs to push multinational companies to become far more transparent about their operations and supply chains.

The evidence suggests that the work of NGOs including Greenpeace and the Rainforest Action Network are showing results. According to a report another environmental group, Forest Trends, released this morning, more companies are not only developing deforestation commitments, but are also sharing and updating their progress publicly.

Researchers who work on Forest Trends’ Supply Change initiative evaluated 447 companies that made 760 various commitments to eliminating deforestation. These companies are concentrated in the beef, soy, palm oil, and timber and paper industries, the four commodities NGOs including the Union of Concerned Scientists describe as driving global deforestation.

At a high level, the good news is that the amount of anti-deforestation commitments as of this year increased over the number Forest Trends tracked in 2016. A commitment, however, does not necessarily translate into action: This same survey suggests that 1 in 5 such commitments has become dormant, and at least a third of the companies surveyed have allowed at least one commitment to languish.

Forest Trends says it sees the most progress on transparency within the palm oil and timber sectors. Certification programs such as the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) and the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certainly help. The report also states that “collective action spurs individual action,” as when a company makes a pledge to support commitments including the New York Declaration on Forests or the High Carbon Stock Approach Group.

But researchers also found that companies with ties to global cattle and soy supply chains are lagging behind on deforestation commitments.

The links between soy and cattle are a concern for Forest Trends, as many NGOs insist the global beef industry alone is responsible for twice as much deforestation as palm oil, timber and soy combined.

Mounting evidence suggests that many global companies are behind a resurgence in deforestation across South America, especially in Brazil and Bolivia. Hence organizations such as the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef and the Leather Working Group have a lot of work ahead – but will also find plenty of opportunities to guide and assist these industries to be more accountable and sustainable.

“Media and public scrutiny around palm oil and its links to tropical forest destruction has helped drive companies to act in order to satisfy growing demands from shareholders and consumers for sustainable practices and products,” Stephen Donofrio, senior advisor for Forest Trends’ Supply Change initiative, told TriplePundit in an emailed statement.

“What our research shows us about major consumer-facing brands from the U.S. and Europe is a great start, but we won’t see transformational change until all companies in the palm value chain – particularly those in Asia – get on board. Governments have a critical supporting role to play by adopting and enforcing better policies.”

This report should be a wake-up call for retailers to hold their entire supply chains more responsible to halt deforestation as their products make their way from farms to these companies’ store shelves.

Of all the companies analyzed, at least 70 percent of processors, producers and traders have issued deforestation commitments, as well as two-thirds of manufacturers. The retail sector is far behind, however, as Forest Trends estimates that just over half of these companies have developed clear and transparent deforestation policies.

The researchers were careful not to single out individual companies, but they did tip their hats to Walmart for making progress on its zero-deforestation commitment. But similar studies reveal that many retail companies are silent on the issue – a disappointment considering that their buying power can help push their suppliers to clean up their operations.

Overall, Forest Trends’ researchers are hopeful, considering that a year ago, only a little over a third of corporate deforestation policies could be verified. That ratio has surged to over 50 percent this year. And as more companies join industry organizations and follow sustainability guidelines, that pressure will help persuade other companies to follow their lead – especially when it comes to privately-held firms, which tend to be more opaque as they do not have to follow the same disclosure policies as their publicly-held peers.

Image credit: CIFOR/Flickr

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

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