OPINION: Despite setbacks, no-deforestation supply chains remain crucial

by Jeff Milder and Leah Samberg | Rainforest Alliance
Friday, 16 April 2021 11:49 GMT

Fire damaged forest is seen in the aftermath of the Riverside fire that ravaged Clackamas County in Estacada, Oregon, U.S., September 15, 2020. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Making supply chains protect forests and land rights is the clearest route to other priorities, from biodiversity protection to human rights

Jeff Milder is director of global programs and Leah Samberg is a senior scientist at the Rainforest Alliance and part of the Accountability Framework initiative, which works to make deforestation-free and responsible supply chains the new normal.

In the world of corporate sustainability, trends and buzzwords come and go. What does not change is the need to sustain healthy ecosystems and support equitable human development as keystones of responsible business. That’s why no-deforestation supply chains—an attention-grabber of the 2010s—still belong on top of the agenda.

With agricultural and forestry commodities driving the majority of tropical deforestation, hundreds of companies that produce or source these products have committed to halt deforestation linked to their supply chains. Many, including major brand-owners such as Nestlé and Danone, vowed to eliminate deforestation by 2020. And in some contexts, progress has been made: for instance, deforestation caused by large-scale oil palm plantations in the most heavily impacted parts of Indonesia has decreased

However, the big picture remains bleak: 2020 has come and gone, and primary forest loss is as high as ever—12% higher in 2020 than the year before and well above the 2010-2015 baseline. 

The forest canopy: an “umbrella” for sustainability goals

At first glance, the new decade has brought a shift in focus toward new corporate goals on climate change, biodiversity, and sustainable development. These commitments are sometimes framed in affirmative terms such as forest positive, net positive, or regenerative

Yet, behind the shifting lexicon, the truth is that making supply chains protective of forests, other natural ecosystems, and land rights is often the clearest route to achieving a range of other sustainability priorities. These include conserving biodiversity, carbon stocks, and ecosystem services while supporting sustainable livelihoods and increasing equity through full respect for human rights. Metaphor is reality: the forest canopy really does provide an umbrella for this decade’s sustainability agenda.

Companies can’t reach net-zero emissions without forest protection

The rise of net-zero emissions commitments may provide the strongest impetus yet to address deforestation. Such commitments doubled in 2020 and have now been issued by companies with a combined revenue of more than half the US GDP

To achieve emissions reduction goals in a credible manner, companies with significant land footprints must take early action to eliminate deforestation and conversion, which can be major emissions sources. For companies that continue to support destruction through their sourcing or financing, the business risks are long-lasting: emissions footprints from contemporary deforestation remain on balance sheets for 20 years. 

Consider the UK-based supermarket giant Tesco. The company showed early leadership by issuing a net-zero emissions commitment in 2017 and made quick work of reducing its Scope 2 emissions (from electricity usage) by 92% in four years. But it has proven more complicated to reduce Scope 3 emissions (generated along Tesco’s value chain), most of which are from agriculture. 

To tackle agricultural emissions, the company recognized the need to follow its supply chain upstream and institute a strong no-deforestation strategy. This is essential: the difference between conversion-free sourcing and conversion-intensive sourcing for Tesco’s 500,000 ton annual soy purchases (primarily for animal feed) could be enough to reduce the company’s entire Scope 3 emissions by 20% or more.

The future is already here

The proliferation of new corporate sustainability commitments raises questions about how to define, implement, and monitor these various notions of sustainability. How do we avoid losing precious time translating these new commitments into results? 

One answer: make use of the full infrastructure already in place to support implementation and monitoring of supply chains that protect forests and other ecosystems. This includes the Accountability Framework as a globally-applicable roadmap, which is well-aligned with guidelines for sectors such as soy and rubber and biomes such as the Amazon, Cerrado, and Chaco. Monitoring tools such as Global Forest Watch Pro and Trase support companies in assessing progress toward no-deforestation goals, while reporting platforms like CDP Forests facilitate company disclosure and drive strong accountability. 

Looking ahead, the partners behind the Accountability Framework initiative are working to integrate this infrastructure for no-deforestation supply chains tightly with newer sustainability tools that companies will rely on during the 2020s. These include the GHG Protocol’s guidance for land sector emissions; science-based target-setting for climate and nature; and ESG investment screens, ratings, and non-financial disclosure requirements, including the forthcoming Taskforce on Nature-Related Financial Disclosures. These interlinked systems enable companies to make no-deforestation sourcing and financing “business as usual”—and a key part of their strategy for meeting other sustainability goals. 

Whether no-deforestation is the headline of your sustainability message or a behind-the-scenes component of your operating, sourcing, and financing decisions, protecting forests and the people who live there lies at the heart of responsible business in this decade and beyond.