Many natural rubber users cannot claim that their rubber is sourced responsibly due to the highly fragmented market at the top of the supply chain. But a growing number of brands are using their influence to change that.
When most people think of forest products, they think of wood — lumber and building products — or pulp-based materials such as paper and cardboard. While it is true that these make up the bulk of forest products used on a regular basis in a myriad of final applications, the natural rubber value chain is also driving responsible forest management in increasingly impactful ways.
87 percent of natural rubber is produced in the Asia-Pacific region — with the majority in Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam as it requires a hot, humid climate to grow. The tropical forests in these areas are of high conservation value and demand increased attention to mitigate further deforestation and critical biodiversity loss.
The properties of natural rubber cannot be replicated by synthetic rubber; and production volume directly correlates to global economic growth, doubling approximately every 25 years. Currently there are about 15 million hectares (37m acres) producing natural rubber globally.
To complicate the situation further, natural rubber is on the short list of agricultural commodities linked to the most deforestation. Between 2000-2015, over 19,000 square miles of tropical forest were cleared for rubber plantations — equivalent to the land area of Costa Rica. This deforestation is occurring in the world’s densest biodiversity hotspots for critically endangered species including elephants, orangutans, tigers, gorillas, and rhinos. Along with this, human rights abuses of local and indigenous communities including illegal land grabbing, child labor and modern slavery can occur.
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68 percent of natural rubber goes to tires; 12 percent to latex products such as gloves, hoses, and condoms; 12 percent to industrial products; 5 percent to footwear and 3 percent to adhesives. The core reason many natural rubber users cannot claim that their rubber is sourced responsibly is due to the highly fragmented market at the top of the supply chain. Raw rubber is produced from latex, the sap of the rubber tree, and is harvested predominantly by smallholders with 5 hectares (approximately 12 acres) or less land under their supervision. It’s then sold to middlemen — sometimes passing through 5 or more hands before being sent to manufacturing and processing, which are more highly concentrated markets. Thus, it is impossible to know where the rubber is coming from and under what type of forest-management practices.
Under the Forest Stewardship Council® (FSC) certification system, which creates habitat protection through buffer zones and cleaner water due to minimal use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers, we’re seeing a dramatic increase in the amount of land and number of smallholders adopting responsible forestry practices.
An example is Agriac — formed in 2019 to improve the lives of small rubber plantation farmers in the south of Thailand while improving the rich biodiversity of the region. They help smallholders work towards and maintain an agroforestry model (as opposed to monoculture). Compatible plants and crops grown among the rubber trees in an agroforestry model provide ground cover — as well as other non-timber forest products such as pineapples and honey which supplement and provide stability to the smallholders’ income from rubber production. The Agriac Group, which saw 3,200 acres under supervision and 495 members in 2021, has expanded to close to 8,000 acres and 3000 smallholder members by the winter of 2023.
Hunter Boots, the 160-year-old maker of the iconic Wellington rain boot, used 74 metric tons of FSC-certified rubber in 2022, jumping to 307 metric tons in 2023. The company has pledged that 100 percent of its rubber footwear will be certified by 2025. By 2024, it will also ensure that 100 percent of its paper packaging is traceable and comes from sustainable sources — in line with its Forest Materials Policy.
lululemon’s broad sustainability program commits that 100 percent of its forest-based materials will be third-party audited or certified by 2023. As of 2018, 100 percent of its forest-based cellulosic fibers were sourced responsibly and assessed through CanopyStyle Audits. At present, lululemon is transitioning all of its yoga mats to natural rubber that is sustainably sourced and certified.
Clarks’ crepe rubber is another good example of apparel and footwear brands incorporating sustainably produced rubber into their products — 70 percent of its crepe soles were FSC certified as of the end of 2021. Clarks, along with other well-known brands, is also a signatory of the forthcoming FSC Natural Rubber Paper, committing to responsible sourcing.
May 2021 saw tire manufacturer Pirelli become the first company in the world to produce a range of FSC-certified tires designed for the BMW X5 xDrive45e Plug-in Hybrid. Giovanni Tronchetti Provera, Pirelli’s SVP of Sustainability and Future Mobility, said: “Before even reaching the road, sustainable mobility begins with raw materials. With the world’s first FSC-certified tire, Pirelli demonstrates its commitment to pursuing increasingly challenging goals in terms of sustainability.”
“As a premium manufacturer, we aspire to lead the way in sustainability and take responsibility,” said Andreas Wendt, former member of the Board of Management of BMW AG, responsible for the Purchasing and Supplier Network. “We have been committed to improving cultivation of natural rubber and increasing transparency in the supplier network since 2015. The use of tires made of certified natural rubber is helping preserve biodiversity and forests to counteract climate change.”
Moving forward, there is growing international pressure to require all Thai plantations to follow sustainable principles and be transparent in their management. In December, Nakorn Takwiraphat, governor of the Rubber Authority of Thailand (RAOT), said: “There is risk that international companies like Michelin and IKEA will not buy our rubber if plantations don’t meet international standards within two years. … RAOT aims to ensure at least 50 percent of Thai rubber plantations meet FSC standards to ensure the country can meet international demands,” and warned that “if not, exporters will face the risk of products being rejected, and adding the benefit that "rubber farmers who meet these standards will be able to sell their products at prices up to 40 percent more than normal.”
"Right now is an exciting time for certification in the rubber value chain due to the convergence of several drivers,” says Sean Nyquist, Value Chain Development Manager of Natural Rubber at FSC. “These include urgency brought forth by the EUDR legislation, accessibility of certification to smallholder tappers through the regional standard for smallholders, pathways to correct past social and environmental harms through the Remedy Framework; and other tools to capture the true value of forests, such as ecosystem services verification, to incentivize responsible forest stewardship and improve smallholder livelihoods."