For most of my professional life, I have worked for agribusiness companies and always wondered about the role of corporations as changemakers. I believe that as part of the social tissue, businesses are key in addressing society’s most pressing issues, and have the potential to drive major transformations for a better world.

Of course, it’s not only up to the corporations to be the changemakers. We, as consumers and voters, must also embrace the responsibility for a just and sustainable society by making better and conscious choices. For instance, it is important to understand what the barriers are that the brands we consume face when implementing their sustainability goals. For example, how they are addressing sustainability issues, who they charge for it and in which ways we could also collaborate.

These reflections led me to write my master’s thesis focused on identifying and analyzing the missing link to transforming companies’ sustainability commitments into action to achieve deforestation-free agricultural supply chains. In this article, I will cover this topic by sharing the main findings of my study.

Forests and deforestation drivers

The record-breaking fires in the Amazon have illicited international attention in the past months, raising concerns about the future of our rainforests. Forests cover 31% of the land area on our planet and its resources are essential to the livelihoods of over one billion people. Forests also provide a lot for different ecosystems, such as water-cycle regulation, precipitation, soil quality, erosion prevention and carbon sequestration, which are key for agricultural production.

However, during the past decade, about 13 million hectares of forest have been lost each year, driven mostly by commercial agriculture. Between 2000 and 2012, it accounted directly for 71% of tropical rainforest deforestation worldwide, linked mainly to the so-called forest-risk and internationally traded commodities: palm oil, soy, timber & pulp, and beef.

Deforestation accounts for approximately 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions and stopping it could provide up to one-third of the carbon emissions mitigation targets to keep temperature rises in check. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) mentions that no other climate mitigation strategy has the potential for a higher and more immediate impact on the global carbon stock than reducing and preventing deforestation.

Corporate sustainability commitments

With increasing concerns about the role of agriculture on deforestation, suppliers and buyers of key agricultural forest-risk commodities are coming under growing pressure to ensure that their supply chains do not destroy forests.  As a result – according to extensive research authored by the NGO Forest Trends – some 447 companies had already made 760 commitments to curb forest destruction. This includes big brands, retailers, traders, and growers.

Zero Deforestation Commitments (ZDCs), as they have become usually known, are voluntarily and publicly stated declarations of intent by private sector large corporations to eliminate deforestation from their supply chains, both through individual sustainability policies and through participation in larger initiatives. Much more than a green-washing PR strategy, as it might seem for some, private sector commitments have set the stage for amplifying global efforts to tackle deforestation and are considered a major step forward, with great potential to foster more sustainable production and consumption.

From commitments to action

Even when fully committed, there are many barriers that could prevent companies from achieving deforestation-free supply chains. For example, tracing commodities to the farm level with scarce geospatial information is very difficult for most companies. Also, just a few of them can enforce immediate change in their suppliers. Besides that, overcoming weak government regulatory frameworks and lack of supportive public policies is key to the effectiveness of company-led sustainability approaches.

Nevertheless, there are a few pathways to overcome those barriers. During my research, I identified twenty-four instruments that could leverage the ZDCs implementation process. For instance, well-designed traceability systems backed-up by the public registry of farms, improved monitoring tools, preferential markets for certified commodities, incentive programs for farmers to adopt sustainable practices, government procurement policies for sustainably produced goods and moratoria. Some instruments can be initiated and put in place by the company itself along its supply chain. Other key instruments are more complex and will require some structural changes and institutional re-arrangements involving several external stakeholders. Thus, the pathway to transform commitments into action is a long and very challenging one.

Next steps

 The complexity of instruments and initiatives that can be used to achieve zero-deforestation shows clearly that companies cannot succeed on their own. One crucial step forward is working through collaboration. All actors involved in this challenge must pro-actively engage in discussions, build strong partnerships, create agreements that will facilitate and scale-up zero-deforestation efforts across sectors. That includes the active participation of companies, governments, financial institutions, farmers, civil society, and consumers.

The conclusion of this study shows the key role of corporations as changemakers. Through its commitments and by driving transformation along its supply chain, companies can set the stage for a bigger change. However, they can only succeed in this endeavor if extra efforts and efficient mechanisms linked to a complex network of actors that goes beyond the company and the farm levels are put in place, and which have a clear aim of influencing deforestation-free practices in all the stages of the supply chain, from farm to fork.

If you want to get full access to this study, click here to download the master thesis. This research was developed during the International Master of Science in Rural Development at Humboldt University in Berlin, Germany.  

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