“Deforestation-Free” is just one step towards greater sustainability

CC BY 2.0 Jack Hebert. Shade-grown coffee in Costa Rica.

In 2014, the number of companies committing to ensuring there’s no deforestation in at least some part of their supply chain reached over 300. This year, more big players have piled on, including McDonald's and Archer Daniels Midland.

Halting deforestation has been identified as an important means of fighting further climate change, in addition to protecting biodiversity. But as more and more companies agree to this important goal, it’s good to keep in mind that reaching a deforestation-free goal is not the same as producing a sustainably sourced product, particularly as many deforestation-free commitments only address a single commodity, such as pulp for paper or palm oil.

Although most forest loss in the tropical regions of the world is associated with conversion for agricultural activities, deforestation-free does little to address the other impacts of farming. It does not require responsible water use, efficient land use or prohibit toxic chemical inputs.

This is a key point in a recent position paper released by Rainforest Alliance, to address the slew of commitments coming from the private sector. “Business and consumer markets must continue to prioritize products with broad sustainability credentials rather than shifting to those with the single deforestation-free attribute,” write the authors.

But there are some encouraging trends. A report from Forest Trends found that four out of five companies rely on third-party certifications to reach their deforestation-free goals—and many of these certifications go above and beyond the first step of preventing forest loss, like the Forest Stewardship Council certification, which also works to ensure the quality of the ecosystem.

Take for example Nespresso, whose parent company Nestlé is a signatory of the New York Declaration on Forests and a member of the Consumer Goods Forum, both of which commit the company to deforestation-free supply chains by 2020. The company has worked with Rainforest Alliance to create the AAA Sustainable Quality Programmme, which helps their coffee producers grow coffee that’s both high-quality and sustainable. In some cases, this has actually meant re-foresting farms, and helping farmers also produce fruit or timber products. Daniel Weston, the General Counsel and Creating Shared Value Director for Nespresso, said that shade grown coffee is not only higher quality, it also encourages climate resilience.

Weston pointed out that there’s no certification that means just deforestation-free. “Rainforest Alliance certification means so much more,” he said. For some of their coffee producers, it may take time before their farms would qualify for certification, and some smaller farms may never be able to afford it. But base-line standards, for deforestation-free and for sustainable production, such as prohibiting certain pesticides, are important to the brand.

For some key forest-risk commodities, the pledges reach a new kind of tipping-point, where the majority of the major buyers have committed to deforestation-free. Ninety-six percent of major palm oil buyers have now made public forest pledges. How well these companies will achieve these goals remains to be seen, as well as how these companies will help their suppliers take further steps towards greater sustainability. Jeffery C. Milder, a senior scientist at Rainforest Alliance said that although there is a risk for greenwashing with the increase in deforestation-free pledges, the positive change they promise is also “tremendously exciting.”

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