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Transforming the global rubber market

Aerial landscape, Western Corridor, Thailand

It’s nearly impossible to live a life that is not connected to tires.

Tires on a car or bicycle used to get to work. Tires on planes and buses that take you to vacation destinations. Or tires on trucks that bring products to the stores where you shop.

In most cases, they are tires that originated from rubber trees in Asia—between India and Vietnam, and southern China and Indonesia—where climate and soils for rubber trees are perfect. It’s where 90% of the world’s natural rubber comes from.

Forests in this region—many which are home to elephants, tigers and other endangered species—often are cleared to make room for growing rubber trees. They are among the most threatened forests in the world. The main threat is agriculture, as trees are cleared to make room for farms where palm oil, sugar, rice, corn and—at a dramatically increasing rate—rubber trees are grown.

Transform the Rubber Market

A forest that was destroyed to create a rubber plantation.

Forests often are cleared to make room for growing rubber trees.

That’s why WWF has set an ambitious goal of transforming the global rubber market. Rubber can and should be produced without clearing natural forests. When done responsibly, rubber production increases biodiversity and carbon sequestration, and reduces carbon dioxide emissions from deforestation. It also avoids human and labor rights violations, as well as land grabs.

Working with communities, governments and companies, we strive to convince a critical mass of globally operating companies to only use rubber that is sustainably and ethically produced—and to work with their producers to make that possible. There is not a third-party certification system for latex from rubber trees that defines “sustainable and ethical (rubber) production” and that the industry could adopt. However, a new Michelin policy defines it well and WWF recommends that the rest of the industry adopt similar standards.

WWF’s priority is commitments from auto makers, fleet operators, airlines, tire warehouses and their tire suppliers. They are the focus because 75% of the world’s natural rubber is used to create tires: more than 30% of a truck tire and 15% of a car tire is natural rubber. With the number of vehicles predicted to double globally by 2050, business as usual for companies that make or use tires would have a dramatic impact on the world’s forests and human rights.

Natural rubber also is used to make shoe soles, gloves, medical supplies and other products (and the trees the rubber comes from can later be used to make furniture and biomass feedstock). WWF hopes that their producers also will commit to responsible rubber production.

Michelin—the world’s largest buyer of natural rubber and second largest tire manufacturer—was the first tire maker to commit to responsible rubber sourcing. In June 2016, Michelin partnered with WWF and announced a new sourcing policy related to natural rubber. The policy focuses on eliminating deforestation and addresses human and labor rights, supply chain transparency, community farm development and tire efficiency. Tire maker Pirelli followed suit in October 2017. 

In May 2017, General Motors, the world’s third largest automaker, became the became the first automaker to announce its intent to commit to responsible rubber sourcing. Barito and Socfin (from Indonesia and Europe, respectively) were the first companies to commit to producing sustainable natural rubber. 

Show How It's Done

Myanmar rubber

Sheets of natural rubber hang in the sun to dry.

Transformation on the ground is challenging, as 85 percent of natural rubber is produced by approximately 6 million farmers. But WWF is addressing this challenging. It has initiated four projects to demonstrate how rubber production can be done sustainably, from an environmental, economic and social standpoint. In southern China, WWF is working with the government to return thousands of acres of unsustainable and illegal rubber plantations back into elephant habitat and to restore poorly managed rubber plantations to semi-natural forests. In Sumatra, Indonesia’s Thirty Hills Landscape, WWF is working with Michelin and its joint venture partner to design deforestation-free, wildlife-friendly plantations that provide sustainable income for local communities—and show that natural rubber can be produced in a sustainable way.

The other pilot projects are in Cambodia and Myanmar—two of the three countries where the largest increase in rubber production is expected and the most forest has fallen for new rubber plantations in the last years. In Cambodia, WWF has initiated a forum for stakeholders to discuss improvements to rubber production in the country. In Myanmar, WWF is tracking supply chains, developing sustainable rubber production strategies with the Ministry of Agriculture, Karen National Union, and the Myanmar Rubber Planters and Producers Association, and is educating farmers about best management practices.

Urgent Need for Change

An Indochinese tiger in the water

Sustainable rubber production is a means for ensuring tiger habitat is protected.

Rising rubber prices worldwide drive home the urgency for this initiative. Higher prices tend to lure farmers and investors to clear more forests so they can grow more rubber trees.

Rubber has not seen the kind of publicity palm oil, soy, and paper have received over the years—publicity that has led to the adoption of robust sustainability criteria for these commodities. That’s one reason why rubber production is fraught with corruption, land grabs, human and labor rights violations, illegal logging and deforestation. And why no tire or automakers signed the two major recent documents related to forests: the 2014 New York Declaration on Forests or the 2009 Consumer Goods Forum pledge to take deforestation out of supply chains. There simply was no perceived need to do so, or to be urged to do so.

By enlisting the help of the world’s largest rubber users, WWF hopes to stop one of the biggest threats to forests—unsustainable and illegal rubber production.

Infographic

Making the production of rubber better for the planet

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