Environmental groups and biodiversity researchers have hailed a move by Michelin to eliminate rubber from deforested areas from its supply chain as an industry breakthrough.
This article is part of the largest Sustainable Rubber briefing, available to subscribers and trialists here.
The tyre maker – the world’s largest buyer of natural rubber – announced this summer that it has begun tracing its entire rubber supply chain, the first big company to make such a commitment.
“Our vision is to consider sustainable natural rubber as a natural and responsible way to protect forests with high conservation value and high carbon stock, as well as foster other environmental services,” Michelin says in its new policy.
Among other commitments, Michelin’s document states that it will not take any action that could lead to the “illegitimate appropriation” of land, to the detriment of local forest-dependent people. Antje Ahrends, head of genetics and conservation at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh, said Michelin’s move was groundbreaking. “So far the reason given for not adopting [such a policy] is the difficulty of tracking the supply chain. If Michelin can show implementation is possible, it will be a step-change in the sector.”
She expects consumers will “sit up and take note – just as happened with palm oil”, and other companies will be forced to follow suit. Cécile Leuba, Forest campaigner for Greenpeace France, applauded Michelin’s decision to use the rigorous High Carbon Stock Approach methodology, which is now widely used by the palm oil industry: “It will soon be more difficult to sell natural rubber that contributes to deforestation,” she said.
Rubber is a major driver of deforestation in south-east Asia, according to WWF, which has been working with Michelin on its rubber supply chain. Prior to 2011, when global prices peaked, the commodity wasn’t much on environmentalists’ radar, as palm oil was considered to be the biggest on-going threat to natural forest. Last year, researchers at the University of East Anglia’s School of Environmental Sciences estimated that between 4.3 and 8.5m hectares of additional rubber plantations are needed to meet expected global demand by 2024.
The lead author of the study, Eleanor Warren-Thomas, said the recent clearance of forest to make way for hevea plantations in Cambodia, Laos, China and elsewhere had threatened globally important wildlife habitats. “Birds, bat and insect species have all been shown to disappear when forests are converted to plantations, and large forest mammals don’t seem to be sustained in areas dominated by rubber,” she said.
Paul Dolman, who was part of the UEA research team, said Michelin’s commitment was “especially significant as some of their suppliers were responsible for recent deforestation. We now hope they successfully and rigorously implement their commitment and inspire other companies to do the same”.
WWF France, with whom Michelin began collaborating last year to promote industry best practice, said: “An important first step to making natural rubber production sustainable is to develop responsibly managed plantations on degraded land with full consent by tenure-holding local communities, instead of grabbing land and clearing high-quality natural forests.”
Through its work with WWF, Michelin initially set up a joint venture with Barito Pacific Group to reforest 88,000 hectares of ravaged land in Indonesia. Until other companies follow Michelin’s lead, consumers will have to rely on the small number of plantations certified by the Forest Stewardship Council as a guarantee that natural forest was not cleared to make way for rubber plantations.
So far, six companies in Sri Lanka, Peru and India operate FSC-certified plantations, accounting for a minute fraction of the world’s natural rubber supply. Some retailers have committed to purchasing rubber from FSC-certified plantations: they include clothing retailer H&M and German footwear supplier Ethletic.
There is a belated initiative from rubber producing nations and industry, the Sustainable Natural Rubber Initiative (SNR-i). Its voluntary standards cover forest sustainability, water management, labour and human rights. The major tyre makers all sit on its working group and 34 companies have completed the scheme’s self-certification process.
However the SNR-i has no third-party verification or requirements for traceability. Professor Katrina Cornish, who leads research on sustainable rubber alternatives at Ohio State University, points out that one of rubber’s big sustainability issues is that rubber latex from hevea trees is still largely tapped by hand. The majority of growers are smallholders, who are “very much at the mercy of global industrial decisions”, Cornish says.
A lot of rubber planting was done in the mid 2000s as rubber prices rose in anticipation of a shortage of natural rubber. It takes seven years for a rubber tree to become productive, and the output from these new trees coincided with a global recession. The glut in rubber was exacerbated by a continued slowdown in China, depressing demand, and prices have kept falling. The excess rubber is only now being mopped up.
“There’s tremendous pressure on farmers in south-east Asia,” observes Amy Randall, manager of innovation and technology development at Bridgestone Americas. When rubber prices fall, they end up cutting trees for more lucrative palm oil, she says: “If you use hevea, globally, you have an impact on everything: including the politics”.
This article is part of the largest Sustainable Rubber briefing, available to subscribers and trialists here.Michelin sustainable rubber deforestation Environment biodiversity supply chain WWF sustainability traceability