Palm oil, cocoa, soy, bananas … and rubber? Despite a lower profile, natural rubber is a widely traded tropical global commodity. Approximately 13.8 million tons of natural rubber was produced in 2019, with Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand being the top producers. But until recently, there was little to suggest that collective and focused efforts from the different stakeholders across the natural rubber supply chain were in place to ensure that supply chain was being managed ethically and sustainably.
That changed in March 2019 with the official launch of the Global Platform for Sustainable Natural Rubber (GPSNR), spearheaded by the Tire Industry Project, a CEO-led sustainability forum for the tire industry under the umbrella of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD). The GPSNR brings tire manufacturers, other major rubber buyers and processors, car makers, international NGOs and smallholders together under an ambitious set of priorities to ensure the sustainable production and supply of natural rubber.
Members already account for a large percentage of purchased natural rubber. “We have more than around 50 percent of the global demand of natural rubber within the membership of GPSNR,” Director Stefano Savi told TriplePundit. “This is potentially a huge game-changer.”
GPSNR asks members to commit to 12 principles, which include important, direct-impact goals such as forest sustainability, water management, anti-corruption, land use, labor and human rights, along with crucial process-oriented principles such as traceability, transparent reporting, auditing protocols, and training and education.
World War II brought disruptions to the global natural rubber supply chain. This spurred the United States government to develop synthetic rubber as a viable, mass-produced alternative. However, synthetic rubber requires carbon-based petroleum byproducts for its production.
With the modern focus on alternatives to carbon-based products, natural rubber continues to be a critical commodity for many industries, particularly tires. Beyond potential climate impacts, synthetic rubber cannot entirely replace natural rubber in all tire applications, meaning natural rubber will always be necessary for the industry. “There is no substitute for the quality and characteristics of natural rubber in making safe, durable, and reliable tires — whether it’s for tires on a car or a plane,” Andy Thompson, global director of sustainability strategy, policy and integration at Bridgestone Corp., a member of GPSNR, told TriplePundit.
As such, demand for natural rubber is expected to rise as global automobile production increases. Unfortunately, as readers of TriplePundit know all too well, natural or plant-based doesn’t always mean ethical and sustainable. “We need to ensure that essential components in products are sustainable in all senses of the word,” Thompson added. “GPSNR is working to improve and align the performance of members of the value chain through implementation of a common set of principles.”
As natural rubber demand grows, the goal is to remove sustainability issues that may currently exist in the natural rubber industry and have been well documented in other industries in order to mitigate the risk of those issues in the future. Take, for example, palm oil biofuels. Once considered an environmentally friendly substitute for petroleum, it turns out that once you factor in greenhouse gas emissions from land-use change, peatland degradation and processing, palm oil biofuels actually have three times more carbon emissions than the fossil diesel they were meant to replace.
Savi knows palm oil well, having worked for the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) prior to joining GPSNR. And while this experience has been valuable, he also knows you can’t just take what worked for palm oil and bring it to natural rubber.
“You cannot apply the same strategy to different supply chains,” he explained. “Every supply chain is unique.”
For example, unlike other tropical commodities, which have many buyers, natural rubber is primarily used by a single industry — tire manufacturers. The global tire industry buys 70 percent of all natural rubber used today, meaning it has a clear role in ensuring this raw material is cultivated in a way that respects communities, the environment, and long-term viability of natural rubber production.
“Tire makers are very conscious about sustainability, and they're very willing to move,” Savi said. “Companies that are more transparent, that are operating more sustainably, are better able to attract funding, because financing is more and more linked to sustainability credentials.”
At the same time, most natural rubber producers are smallholders, an estimated 7 million to 8 million in total — a stark contrast from palm oil or bananas, which are grown primarily on large plantations. Using a certification model like the RSPO would be time-consuming and difficult to manage.
“Eighty-five percent of natural rubber is produced by independent smallholders,” Savi told us. “So you have a supply base that is very wide and very complicated.”
To make oversight work for natural rubber, the GPSNR will need to create an entirely new approach — and it’s already well on the way.
At its virtual General Assembly in September, GPSNR members approved a policy framework for sustainable natural rubber production and sourcing, which comprises eight core commitments around legal compliance, ecosystems, human rights, supply chain traceability, monitoring and reporting, as well as processes to implement these commitments. Additionally, the policy framework aligns with GPSNR’s 12 overarching principles. Member companies are expected to integrate these commitments into their purchasing policies and other corporate documents.
“This policy covers different aspects of sustainability — economic, environmental and social — like requirements for no deforestation and no expansion onto peat, for example,” Savi explained.
The General Assembly also created a dedicated membership category for smallholder producers, which gives them an equal role in decision-making within the GPSNR. Twenty-eight smallholder members from seven rubber-producing countries joined the GPSNR in 2020.
“We are combining a multitude of perspectives in finding common solutions,” said Thompson of Bridgestone. “Having a common set of principles is important to create sustainable solutions that are predictable, consistent and long-lasting.”
For now, GPSNR is ahead of the curve — and if it’s successful, it could help prove that sustainable supply chains can be designed proactively.
This article series is sponsored by the Tire Industry Project and produced by the TriplePundit editorial team. Members of the Tire Industry Project (in alphabetical order) are Bridgestone, Continental, Cooper Tire, Goodyear, Hankook, Kumho Tire, Michelin, Pirelli, Sumitomo Rubber, Toyo Tires, and Yokohama Rubber.
Image credit: Flickr/Mike Fernwood
Nithin Coca is a freelance journalist who focuses on environmental, social, and economic issues around the world, with specific expertise in Southeast Asia.