Everybody's Business: Consumer Goods Companies and Tropical Deforestation

September 6, 2012
Doug Boucher
Former contributor

Over the past five years, I’ve noticed that our work here at UCS on tropical deforestation has gradually changed its emphasis from actions in tropical forest countries, such as REDD+, to what can be done in consuming countries (which are not the same as developed countries) about the demand that drives tropical deforestation.

One might say that our focus has been moving up the supply chain, from where deforestation is happening to the consumption of the products produced on the deforested land. And we’re not the only ones to start looking at the loss of tropical forests in this more holistic way.

A banner at Rio+20. Source: Calen May-Tobin, UCS.

One reflection of this new emphasis was an interesting announcement made at the Rio+20 conference this past June. All in all, the outcome of Rio+20 was disappointing, as my colleague Calen May-Tobin and others of us explained at the time in a series of blog posts from Rio de Janeiro and elsewhere. There were no important treaties signed as at the original Rio Earth Summit in 1992, nor any major new commitments by governments to put resources into dealing with climate change and other critical issues.

Governments didn’t act. But businesses — with government help — did launch a new initiative that in the long run may be important in moving to a deforestation-free world.

At a gala event hosted by Avoided Deforestation Partners (ADP), the Consumer Goods Forum (CGF) and the U.S. government announced a partnership to move toward deforestation-free, sustainable agriculture. (Full disclosure: we’ve collaborated with ADP and its founder Jeff Horowitz for several years, and I am boundless in my admiration for Jeff and his ability to bring important people together for the cause of ending deforestation.) The CGF/U.S. government partnership will work to develop ways that consumer goods companies can create zero-deforestation supply chains.


At the ADP Rio+20 event: Julia Marton-Lefevre, Director-General of the IUCN; former President of Ireland Mary Robinson; scientist Jane Goodall and US EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson. Source: Avoided Deforestation Partners, http://adpartners.org/pdf/ADP_Rio_photo_montage.pdf


It’s easy to make announcements, but delivering on them is a lot harder. So a skeptical attitude — which is my standard operating procedure anyhow — is certainly warranted here. But there is one point on which the CGF already deserves credit: They’ve identified the fundamental causes of the problem.

As their web site states:

 “Whilst the causes of deforestation are complex it is generally acknowledged that the biggest drivers are the cultivation of soya and oil palm, logging for the production of paper and board and the rearing of cattle. All of these commodities are major ingredients in the supply chains of most consumer goods companies.”

Soy, palm oil, wood products, and beef — these commodities are the main reasons why tropical deforestation is happening. And we’ve focused on them in a series of three reports on how businesses can achieve zero deforestation that we’ve released over the past six months.

For example, in Recipes for Success, on the vegetable oil industry, we showed how oilseeds, of which palm oil and soybeans are the leading kinds, have expanded rapidly into tropical forests. The land used for most kinds of crops, including grains, legumes, and sugar and root crops, has remained fairly stable, but for oilseeds it has doubled in the past four decades. Global consumption of palm oil, almost all of which comes from the rainforest regions of Southeast Asia, has skyrocketed in the twenty-first century. The result has been a tragic loss of tropical forests and their biodiversity and carbon stocks.

The consumption of palm oil, which is used in thousands of foods and consumer products, has boomed in the past decade. Source: FAOSTATS, U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.

In Indonesia, which has become the world’s leading producer, most of the increase in palm oil production has come from expanding the plantations, not from increases in yield. Source: USDA Foreign Agricultural Service, 2010. URL: http://www.pecad.fas.usda.gov/highlights/2010/10/Indonesia/

The companies that use these oils in their products have a key role, but so do consumers. A recent paper by Lian Pin Koh and Tien Ming Lee in Biological Conservation has a valuable analysis of this potential. Under a scenario in which vegetable oil consumption in both rich and poor countries converges to a “healthy” level based on World Health Organization recommendations, the demand for land to produce palm oil would be reduced by 70 percent. (This would mean a reduction in per capita consumption in countries like the United States, by the equivalent of about one large serving of French fries a week; a small increase in China; and a substantial increase in India.)

This is a back-of-the-envelope estimate based on several assumptions, a few of of which I question, but that’s a subject for another blog post. What’s important is that Koh and Lee have shown that changing consumption patterns can make an important difference to the pressure for deforestation. In other words, our choices about what to eat really matter.

You can help make these choices effective, not only by what you buy but also by telling the companies that you want them to ensure zero deforestation in the products that they sell you. Please urge the CEOs of Coca-Cola, Wal-Mart, Procter & Gamble, and Kraft, who sit on the board of the Consumer Goods Forum, to ensure all the products made or sold by member companies globally are deforestation-free.