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Supply Chain
Despite Global Commitments, Deforestation Is Surging:
5 Ways Companies Can Right the Ship

October’s commitment by the countries home to our major rainforests — as well as prior agreements from COP, the US and the EU — show serious intent. Here’s how companies can effectively protect critical biodiversity.

Environmental activists started campaigning to ‘save the rainforests’ in the 1980s. Yet, despite increased awareness of its impact on climate change and biodiversity, the pace of deforestation has accelerated over the past decade compared with the early 2000s.

However, in October, the countries home to the world’s three largest rainforests — the Amazon, the Congo basin and the Borneo-Mekong Basin in Southeast Asia — committed to partnering together to overcome deforestation and protect biodiversity, showing that the tanker might be turning around.

Parallels can be found in the sentiment around plastic pollution over the past 60 years. Public awareness of the impact that plastic debris has on oceans and the risks associated with the chemicals used to manufacture plastic dates to the 1960s, with both awareness and anxiety around plastics growing exponentially in the decades that followed. However, much like the acceleration of deforestation, plastic consumption has quadrupled over the past 30 years.

The 2015 video of a sea turtle having a plastic straw removed from his nose had a catalytic impact — creating a paradigm shift in the views of businesses, governments and the general public on the need to cut single-use plastic. Since then, commitments have been made — but negotiations continue on how to meet the historic agreement to end all plastic pollution at the United Nations Environment Assembly in 2022.

We’re now starting to see similar positive pledges around slowing deforestation. Many companies that rely on the commodities that drive deforestation, including food producers and packaging suppliers, have made commitments to address risks and ensure deforestation-free supply chains by as early as 2025. Further, the Global Biodiversity Framework — a product of the COP15 summit in 2022 — commits member nations to “halt and reverse” biodiversity loss by 2030. In the US, President Biden signed an executive order last year to advance efforts to conserve forest ecosystems and address drivers of global deforestation — including illegal forest clearing. The European Parliament also passed a supply chain transparency law in 2023 that will require companies selling products in the EU to have a due-diligence statement from their suppliers, confirming the product does not come from deforested land.

I see deforestation at an impasse similar to where plastic was not all that long ago. With recent research showing the Amazon is reaching a “tipping point” where it will lose its ability to bounce back, it is high time we have a viable blueprint and make substantial progress. Without intervention, the consequences would be devastating — the world’s forests are home to about 80 percent of terrestrial biodiversity.

How ready are companies to meet zero-deforestation obligations?

A review of 865 companies that disclosed their data to CDP in 2021 showed that 66 percent had some sort of policy related to deforestation; 36 percent had a public, company-wide no-deforestation or no-conversion policy; and just 13 percent had commitments to no-deforestation or no-conversion that included remediation, restoration or compensation for local communities.

Addressing deforestation across global supply chains is highly complex. Companies often have limited visibility on the sourcing locations and production practices associated with the commodities they purchase. Identifying the origins of ingredients and other raw materials can be frustratingly hard to understand.

Commonly cited issues when it comes deforestation-free sourcing include no common definition of what constitutes a “forest,” and considerable differences between zero-deforestation commitments (in which no trees are allowed to be cut down at all) and no-net-deforestation commitments (where losses can be offset by trees being planted elsewhere). However, one of the most difficult issues to address is traceability of products and commodities back to where they were grown and produced.

How do we get to where we want to be?

Pollination works with stakeholders throughout supply chains for a range of commodities, and has identified five actions that can help companies address and reduce deforestation:

  1. Use a high-quality framework to align company commitments for reducing deforestation in supply chains, such as the ones designed by the Accountability Framework initiative (AFi) or the Science-Based Targets initiative (SBTi).

  2. Prioritize — starting with the commodities identified in the supply chain that are of the highest risk with respect to deforestation and expanding commitments to lower-risk, high-impact commodities in the future.

  3. Develop relationships with supply chain partners. This may mean supporting downstream suppliers or aggregators with training or technical support, enabling them to track where commodities originate and how they were produced. It may also mean facilitating access to technical and financial resources for farmers in the supply chain.

  4. Invest in supply chain traceability, monitoring and verification systems. These systems will provide the data to both make change and legitimize a company’s zero-deforestation claims. For example, Unilever implemented satellite imaging and artificial intelligence in its quest to achieve a deforestation-free supply chain for commodities including palm oil. As a result, over 3,900 palm estates have been assessed, enabling Unilever to guide suppliers toward more sustainable sources.

  5. Finally, recognize the importance of collaboration. No single organization can address deforestation alone. Effectively addressing the drivers of deforestation may require companies to partner with governments, NGOs, community groups and other businesses — as well as collaborating across commodities.

With these elements in place, eliminating deforestation from supply chains is achievable. Although it is difficult and complex work, it can be done with existing technology, collaboration across landscapes and supply chains, incentives for downstream actors, and ambition to deliver on current commitments. Protecting the life-sustaining biodiversity of healthy forests benefits the climate, nature, local communities and ultimately, companies themselves while driving long-term business value.