Deforestation: the world needs action, not words, from business
You don’t have to look very hard to find companies making big promises on environmental issues, and deforestation is no exception. In fact, almost any major brand will leap at the opportunity to tell you how much it cares about saving orangutans. The reality behind the words, though, is often underwhelming.
A staggering new study lays bare widespread failings from many industries on the deforestation issue. Global Canopy describes itself as ‘a data-driven not-for-profit that targets the market forces destroying nature.’ Its Forest 500 project has released new research looking into the track records of 350 companies with the greatest exposure to what it calls “forest-risk commodities” – things like beef, leather, timber, soy and palm oil. The results are not flattering.
The study finds that a whopping 31% of the companies examined have made no deforestation commitments for any of the commodities to which they are exposed. They include the car giant VW Group and the shoe retailer Deichmann Group. Even among those who have made various promises and pledges about dealing with those high-risk commodities, Global Canopy says: “only half of these are actively monitoring their suppliers or sourcing regions in line with these policies – an essential step to deliver on headline commitments.”
The root of the problem here is the flawed top-down approach to solving environmental issues, in both corporate and political contexts. From manufacturing to government, we see the same trend: great, sweeping promises are made about revolutionising the way entire industries operate over the course of several years. But the actual legwork of those on the ground finding accessible ways to do their jobs without chopping down more trees doesn’t get a mention.
This applies to governments just as much as it does private companies. At COP26 in November 2021, leaders agreed to ambitious targets. They failed, already behind schedule after three months. COP27 then re-committed to largely similar targets in 2022, with no roadmap for how to get there.
The result of this flawed way of thinking about issues like deforestation is short-termism, green virtue-signalling and an endless stream of failures. We have slipped into an endless repetitive cycle of world leaders and industry giants sharing a stage to set big, eye-catching goals, such as the COP26 pledge to halt deforestation by 2030.
Then, almost invariably, they fail to achieve those goals and then set them all over again, apparently having learned nothing in the process. Each new announcement is greeted with the same reliable media chorus of some saying “this is a ground-breaking step forward” and others saying “this goal isn’t ambitious enough”. Meanwhile, far too few ask, “but how will this goal practically be achieved?”
It needn’t be this way. In the twenty-first century, there is no excuse for failing to innovate and adapt to make business practices more sustainable. There are some industries that have taken genuinely meaningful steps towards eradicating deforestation from their supply chains, chief among them beef and palm oil. On beef, the UN Development Programme’s ‘Good Growth Partnership’ boasts of new “national standards” it has set in Paraguay to tighten up supply chains, seemingly in partnership with the industry, as well as ringfencing swathes of Paraguayan land “so that planned agricultural expansion can avoid important conservation areas.”
Meanwhile, deforestation from palm oil has tumbled to a four-year low according to research from – you guessed it – Global Canopy’s Forest 500. Palm oil now meets more than a third of global vegetable oil demand but causes just 4% of the deforestation. The sustainability of the industry’s practices has increased rapidly in recent years thanks to pressure to go green. 90% of the palm oil imported into Europe is certified as sustainable, meaning its production had no impact on primary forest, natural habitats or local communities and cultures.
Sadly, other key industries like paper, soy and many more are lagging behind on even setting targets for themselves, let alone meeting them, as Global Canopy’s research exposes. And those who have produced impressive words but not much else don’t seem to realise that promises alone are not enough. Addressing deforestation doesn’t mean signalling virtue and not following through. Consumers – and voters – can tell the difference, and they are becoming more eco-conscious. Procrastinating action on deforestation is a ticking time bomb for brands. They should act now to protect their green reputation while they still have the chance.
Jason Reed is a political commentator for a wide range of outlets. Follow him on Twitter @JasonReed624
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