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Ten years since anti-deforestation pledge, corporate world still not doing enough

Oil palm plantation in Riau, Sumatra, Indonesia. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

  • Global Canopy released its Forest 500 list of the 350 companies and 150 financial institutions connected to deforestation-linked commodities, including beef, leather, soy, palm oil, timber, pulp and paper.
  • This is the organization’s 10th report, showing that numerous companies haven’t done enough to remove deforestation from their supply chains over the last decade.
  • The report found 30% of companies still haven’t developed a single deforestation policy for their supply chains, while others have developed policies but failed to implement them in a meaningful way.
  • The few companies with strong, long-term goals aren’t always doing enough to meet them, according to the report.

It was supposed to be a major milestone, back in 2014, when hundreds of governments and companies came together to sign the New York Declaration on Forests, aimed at eliminating natural forest loss worldwide. But many of the declaration’s goals have come and gone over the last decade, and companies continue to lag behind on meeting future ones.

One organization, Global Canopy, a U.K.-based not-for-profit, has been monitoring major players in the private sector since the declaration was signed. Its database, named Forest 500 because of the 350 companies and 150 financial institutions included on the list, keeps track of who’s made what promises and how close they are to fulfilling them. It focuses on commodities with the greatest impact on forests — beef, leather, soy, palm oil, timber, pulp and paper — and what policies have been put in place to eliminate deforestation from those supply chains.

Global Canopy released its 10th annual Forest 500 report last month, a notable opportunity to reflect on what progress has or has not been made over the last decade. Numerous companies still haven’t developed a single deforestation policy for their supply chains in that time. Others have developed policies but failed to implement them in a meaningful way. And those with strong, long-term goals aren’t always doing enough to meet them.

“To ensure a livable future, the world cannot endure another decade of limited progress,” the report said. “This is the critical decade for humanity.”

Companies on the Forest 500 list include everything from beef giant JBS to The Home Depot, Starbucks and Domino’s Pizza, as well as financial institutions like JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America and Mitsubishi UFJ Financial. For the Forest 500 report, Global Canopy evaluates everyone on the list and breaks down the larger trends.

Deforestation from palm oil in Sumatra, Indonesia. Photo by GRID-Arendal via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

According to the report, 30% of companies still don’t have a publicly available deforestation commitment for any high-risk commodities. And while nearly two-thirds of the companies have at least one deforestation commitment, they haven’t shown any evidence of implementing them.

China Resources Company, for example, is involved in food distribution and paper packaging products connected to beef, palm oil, paper and soy. But the company has yet to publish a single policy ensuring that its products don’t contribute to deforestation.

Kikkoman Corporation, one of the world’s leading manufacturers of soy sauce, was called a “powerbroker” of soy, beef and paper packaging in the report. The company has published deforestation commitments but hasn’t explained what it’s doing to fulfill them. In some cases, that could involve releasing supplier lists and publishing how it’s monitoring supply chains, Global Canopy said.

“It’s impossible to tell whether these companies have made progress towards their commitments for these commodities,” the report said.

Specifically, it noted that more attention needs to be paid to cattle, the largest driver of deforestation. The report said 65% of companies on the list and 70% assessed for leather haven’t made a single public deforestation commitment.

Several companies have come under fire for failing to implement sufficient oversight of their supply chains in recent months. Others have even been accused of misleading the public about their environmental targets. JBS is facing a lawsuit in New York for false advertising about reaching net-zero carbon emission goals by 2040. Commodities giant Cargill, despite accelerating its deforestation commitments, has been criticized for neglecting oversight in certain countries where it works.

JBS told Mongabay it takes its commitment to a more sustainable future for agriculture very seriously. “Our belief that American agriculture can help sustainably feed the world is undeterred,” it said.

The other companies declined to comment or didn’t respond to a request for this article.

A herd of cattle in the Amazon. Photo by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Twenty-eight financial institutions on the Forest 500, which have been on the list for the last 10 years, don’t have a public deforestation policy at all. BlackRock, for example, has provided more than $17.1 billion of financing to companies like Amazon and Johnson & Johnson, which have their own flawed deforestation policies, the report states.

Canadian bank Sun Life Financial has provided $1.6 billion of financing to companies like Colgate-Palmolive and Nestlé without having a policy that ensures the companies aren’t using products sourced to deforestation.

None of the financial institutions mentioned in this article responded to a request for comment.

The report isn’t all bad news, however. Some companies, despite their flaws, have shown some signs of progress over the last decade. Consumer goods giant Unilever has made significant strides in cleaning up its supply chains, making as much as 79% of its palm oil deforestation-free and 99% of its soy and paper deforestation-free. And confectionery company Mars is working to stop deforestation associated with cocoa, beef, soy, palm oil and other products by 2025.

Those kinds of policies give companies a slightly higher “score” out of 100. But it’s also worth noting that only 21 companies and three financial institutions scored more than 50%.

Global Canopy says stricter measures need to be taken to protect forests; voluntary action isn’t happening, its report said. Companies aren’t willing to implement supply chain regulations on their own; they need to be obligated to implement them through industry regulation and then held accountable if they fail to do so.

That will require greater transparency by companies, and a recognition that deforestation is central to the fight against climate change, the organization argued.

“We can win this fight, and we must,” the report said. “All of the pieces of the puzzle are now on the table — the data, the tools, the on-the-ground know-how — to move our economies decisively away from their self-destructive reliance on deforestation.”

Banner image: Oil palm plantation in Sumatra, Indonesia. Image by Rhett A. Butler.

See related from this reporter:

Major meatpackers are unlawfully deforesting Brazil’s Cerrado, report says

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