GM, Michelin put brakes on deforestation linked to rubber

FlickrRyan Woo
Rubber harvesting on a plantation in Cambodia.

Forests and natural vegetation absorb about 30 percent of the carbon dioxide that’s emitted worldwide from industrial activities, transportation and electricity generation, making forests crucial in the fight against global warming.

That’s one reason why deforestation is so problematic. Each year, upwards of 26 million acres of forests are lost, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, as the world’s voracious appetite for palm oil, timber, beef, corn, soy and paper pulp spurs growers to clear-cut forests to plant commodity crops or construct buildings.

Lately an additional culprit is putting pressure on forests: rubber harvesting. But the world's biggest tire manufacturer, Michelin Group, and automotive giant General Motors are embracing new procurement policies that are steering the industry toward a "zero deforestation" stance on this issue.

They're doing this as ever more land is cleared for rubber. Demand for raw rubber is surging as the expanding global middle class buys cars and, thus, tires, or travels in planes. Auto and aircraft tire manufacturing consume about 70 percent of the world’s raw rubber. Production has been rising about 4 percent a year for the past several years, according to researcher Freedonia Group.

Rubber demand and land grabs

In Southeast Asia, which supplies 90 percent of the world’s rubber, this demand has translated into rapid deforestation and predatory land grabs from small farmers, as the lucrative demand for rubber attracts new entrants to the market, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). Plantation builders are clearing the biodiversity of tropical forests to plant exclusively rubber trees. The governments of Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand are interested in the economic benefits of rubber cultivation, pushing for more plantations to be established, according to news reports.

But now, the major buyers of raw rubber, working with WWF, are stepping in to try to curb deforestation and advocate for sustainable cultivation of rubber.

Last year, Michelin announced it no longer would procure rubber from deforested lands. It set about working with suppliers and regional governments to encourage sustainable forestry. Michelin’s zero deforestation policy led other tire makers Bridgestone, Goodyear and Continental to also begin working towards zero deforestation in rubber procurement.

Now, GM is also adopting a zero deforestation stance in its tire procurement policy. The largest U.S. automaker (in market capitalization) in June declared that it would buy only tires with rubber sourced from sustainably grown forests. In addition, the company announced plans to work with other automakers and tire manufacturers to come up with an industry response to curb deforestation, land grabs and human rights abuses in rubber-producing countries.

"About 75 percent of the natural rubber harvested in the world is used in automotive industries. So we felt it was our duty to step up," said Steve Kiefer, GM senior vice president of global purchasing and supply chain. After all, U.S. automakers buy "almost 50 million tires a year."

Kiefer credited the World Wildlife Fund with bringing attention to GM about what’s happening in the rubber-producing countries.

GM

WWF is working with GM to join Michelin in discouraging deforestation through its procurement policies. Both companies have said they seek to galvanize a broad industry position against deforestation. "We are trying to get all the tire makers on board and all the automakers on board," he said.

WWF’s Kerry Cesareo, vice president of forests, said the dialogue started as a result of the organization's study of deforestation in Southeast Asia, especially in the Mekong region of Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Thailand. "We had been looking at palm oil and paper and pulp and then this, rubber, [emerged] as a kind of looming threat," she said.

In tropical forests, demand for raw rubber is inciting some opportunists to engage in land grabs or "taking land perceived to be available," Cesareo said. The predators clear the forest vegetation and reseed for rubber trees.

That process hurts the forest and its abiilty to absorb carbon and also possibly the livelihoods of smallholder farmers who might be already harvesting in the forest.

WWF plans to work with tire manufactures, automakers and hopefully airlines to spread no-deforestation policies."The GM commitment is important because the manufacture of tires consumes 75 percent of the world’s rubber and most of it comes from that region," she said.

"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," WWF stated.

In addition to forests' key role in absorbing carbon, tropical forests are home to the widest diversity of biological species. According to Global Forest Watch, the Mekong Region has some of the most biodiverse tropical forests in the world and yet also is undergoing some of the fiercest deforestation. The organization cited University of Maryland research from monitoring satellite images that found that the average rate of tree loss in the Mekong jumped five-fold between 2001 and 2014.

At a Michelin-hosted event last month in Montreal, Michelin, GM and other tire and auto manufacturers discussed what’s happening and what could be done, said David Tulauskas, GM’s sustainability director.

"By the end of 2017, we want to come up with a roadmap to address all these issues that assures for future purchases of tires that the rubber comes from sustainable rubber forest sources. It cannot contribute to deforestation. It cannot be aligned with unethical business practices or unethical labor practices," Tulauskas said.

Respect for economic development needs

But he said GM and its partners also recognize the economic importance of rubber in these regions. So the company wants to support the teaching of sustainable farming and foresting practices that could make rubber cultivation bring more consistent high yields but in a sustainable fashion that doesn’t destroy forests.

Rubber cultivation is a major economic driver in the Mekong countries. Myanmar’s government has talked of expanding rubber cultivation by 60 percent in the next decade. "That’s great; we just want to make sure it is done in a way that strengthens the community and, along with having economic benefits, also preserves the biodiversity and doesn’t cause deforestation," Kiefer said.

The effort will be like the multi-industry effort to eschew purchase of conflict minerals, "only harder because it’s more countries," he added.

WWF’s Cesareo and the GM officials suggested that such an effort will be best achieved by transitioning the whole market to accept only sustainably sourced rubber, such as the example set by Michelin in 2016 to only use rubber that is sustainably and ethically sourced.

"Transforming the global rubber and tire supply chain to create lasting, environmentally sound sustainable rubber production requires a collaborative approach," GM stated.  

The company noted: "As tire manufacturers develop sustainable natural rubber policies, automaker demand will help fuel results. GM will be working with tire suppliers, governments, rubber industry associations and environmental NGOs to drive alignment and reduce supply chain complexity."

WWF says the negative practices in rubber harvesting haven’t received the publicity that the production of palm oil, soy and paper have received over the years. But the NGO hopes to see an industry-wide commitment to avoid deforestation and human rights abuses in rubber cultivation, like the industry-wide coalitions in palm oil.