Major commodity sectors, such as palm oil and pulp and paper, have been tackling sustainability and deforestation challenges for decades. The natural rubber sector is newer to the sustainability race. It only started addressing these issues over the last five years.
Despite the opportunity to learn from other sectors, the natural rubber sector still lags far behind in supply chain transparency and sustainability. While there’s been some recent progress, we are calling on industry leaders to fully join the race. They must disclose where their rubber comes from and the conditions under which it’s produced.
About three years ago, civil society organizations joined industry representatives and smallholder farmers in forming the Global Platform for Sustainable Natural Rubber (GPSNR), an initiative to drive the market’s uptake of sustainable rubber. This week, GPSNR held its third General Assembly (GA) and adopted reporting requirements for industry members.
These reporting requirements offer a solid framework for companies to disclose progress in implementing their sustainability policies. These data would allow buyers to make educated decisions on which company to buy from based on a supplier’s environmental, social and governance (ESG) performance.
While WWF applauds this important step forward, the race is far from won. Despite lengthy debates in the lead-up to the GA, members did not come to an agreement on the disclosure of company members’ ESG performance. As a compromise, members will develop a road map in early 2022 for a progressive increase in data transparency over the first three years of reporting. WWF will remain engaged in this process and has an interest in ensuring that a robust plan emerges.
Toward the Finish Line
So what does it mean for the natural rubber sector to be effectively in the sustainability race?
Transparency and disclosure are critical elements of GPSNR’s credibility and its effectiveness in driving sector transformation. Without these, companies can’t make legitimate sustainability claims.
Due to lobbying pressure from tire makers, the European Union recently removed natural rubber as one of the commodities in the “Proposal for a regulation on deforestation-free products.” This reflects the sector’s overarching resistance to transparency and sustainability.
The industry must show how it’s meeting the urgent need to move the world’s rubber farmers out of poverty and ensure rubber production has not contributed to deforestation or impacted High Conservation Value areas or carbon-rich peatlands. GPSNR members must commit to identifying the origin of their materials. No longer is it acceptable for downstream companies to claim that it is impossible to know where their rubber comes from. They should share this information publicly along with any associated risks and what they are doing to address them.
The natural rubber sector is also behind the curve in effectively implementing policies on the ground. Some small-scale sustainability pilots are underway in rubber producing countries, but these only scratch the surface when it comes to protecting forests, wildlife and climate and the livelihoods of the millions of smallholder rubber farmers that live below the poverty line. These types of interventions are needed at scale.
Pedal to the Metal
This industry needs leaders. It needs companies willing to disclose where their rubber comes from and the conditions under which it is produced. It needs companies willing to make a difference in the lives of their rubber producers and to uphold the rights of their workers. It needs companies willing to protect forests in danger of disappearing when world rubber demand spikes. It needs downstream companies to step up their contributions to the producers and processors upstream that are tasked with the heavy lifting in making rubber truly sustainable.
The world’s largest tire and automakers must use their sheer market power and potential to effect change. We urgently need to see these giants set the example for the natural rubber sector and put the proverbial pedal to the metal in the sustainability race.
These leaders must also support legislation currently being negotiated in the EU and the US to reduce commodity-driven deforestation. If all of this comes together, the rubber sector will be in the best position to win the race and deliver benefits for forests, wildlife, climate and people.