By Philip Tapsall : (The author is Director of Sustainable Business at WWF-India.)

Companies in natural rubber supply chain can play a key role in redressing the problem of ever-rising forest loss rates in the world resulting from tremendous growth in NR plantations, especially in the Southeast Asian countries

Gobal demand for natural rubber is on the rise – clocking a growth rate of 4.1% in 2016. Over 70% of the world’s natural rubber goes into the making of tyres. Today, India is the 2nd largest consumer; and the 5th largest importer of natural rubber in the world.
Interestingly, nearly all of the natural rubber we use comes from tree plantations in mainland Southeast Asia – 90% of all natural rubber produced in the world today is grown in this region.
Sadly, as a result of this tremendous growth in natural rubber and other commodities, the Southeast Asian countries like Cambodia, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Laos have experienced some of the highest rates of forest loss in the world. Cambodia alone logged the world’s fastest rate of deforestation in 2014, where much of this forest was replaced by rubber. By 2050, the area of land dedicated to such farming systems could more than double or triple. India imports natural rubber from some of the most high conservation value landscapes in Southeast Asia.

Collective action

Companies in the natural rubber supply chain can play a key part in redressing these impacts. The 2014 Climate Summit in New York saw 53 of the world’s largest companies sign the New York Declaration on Forests (NYDF), through which they committed to eliminate deforestation from their supply chains. Hundreds of companies from the Consumer Goods Forum have made the same pledge in recognition of the need for collective effort to address deforestation and its related impacts.
Since the adoption of the NYDF in 2014, the movement to tackle deforestation linked to agricultural commodities like palm oil, timber, pulp and paper, soy and cattle, has developed rapidly, particularly with the private sector. A report titled Tracking corporate commitments to deforestation free supply chains, published by Supply Change in 2016, researched 629 companies with exposure to deforestation risk, and found that 66% of these companies have made at least one public commitment to eliminate or reduce deforestation from their supply chains.
Until recently, corporate commitments did not specifically relate to natural rubber. However, Michelin, the world’s largest buyer of natural rubber, has announced a new ‘zero deforestation’ policy setting the bar for the rest of the industry to follow. Globally, WWF and Michelin have formed a partnership to drive change across the market, and work in landscapes like Jambi in Sumatra (Indonesia) to build capacity with smallholder producers to increase yield and, at the same time, restore degraded land concessions — a total area of 88,000 hectares — to restore the natural environment and support community crops. This project will ultimately create more than 16,000 direct or indirect long-term and stable local jobs. The partnership includes tracing the company’s entire supply chain and advising its natural rubber suppliers to achieve compliance with its new policy. Key to this work is the promotion of sustainable best practices in rubber tree plantation and in the harvesting and processing of latex.
Other global tyre manufacturers are also looking at driving sustainability within their natural rubber supply chains. For example, Pirelli is looking at sustainable management of its supply chain, including sourcing processes and risk assessment (social, environmental, economic, governance, reputational) for the processors it sources from. Toyota Motor Corporation and WWF are working together on the Living Asian Forest Project to conserve tropical forests and wildlife in WWF priority places in Southeast Asia, i.e. Borneo (Kalimantan) and Sumatra in Indonesia; and Greater Mekong. The work is also centered on increasing sustainability of production and use of forest-
based commodities like natural rubber, in recognition of the link between production and deforestation, and increased
threats to endangered species in these places of high conservation value. There is also a commitment by Toyota to collaborate with industries and stakeholders to contribute to international standard-setting for natural rubber.

Basic steps to initiate action

Manufacturers responsible rubber production can start with simple steps – the first being to know where their natural rubber comes from, even before setting ambitious goals with measurable targets. In the longer run, true change will require making a commitment to ‘deforestation-free’. This commitment can be backed by a step-wise strategy that involves:
• Tracing where natural rubber is being procured from.
• Identifying potential ‘unwanted’ sources that are linked to deforestation that should be avoided.
• Building capacity with producers to drive productivity and yield improvements towards sustainable production.
• Continuous improvement to gradually move supply chains towards ‘deforestation-free’ or certified-sustainable procurement.
A more responsible rubber industry can support land-holding communities that protect and restore forests, design wildlife-friendly concessions and improve yield and quality for smallholder farmers. Indian companies can benefit from being part of such an industry, as these measures not only contribute to an important global cause but are also a means to protect brand value, improve supply chain resilience and meet the future requirements of an evolving customer base.