The Sustainability Initiative You’ve Never Heard Of: Ethical Rubber Sourcing
At this summer's Sustainability Insights Conference, a new topic captured our attention, and it has implications across several outdoor categories including footwear, packs, bicycles, paddle and more. Here's what you need to know about ethical rubber sourcing.
The Sustainability Insights Conference is a forum for outdoor industry professionals to come together to learn more about sustainability trends inside and outside the outdoor industry. The objective of this year’s conference, in keeping with our theme of moving from assessment to action, was to identify four opportunities to address important topics and improve our industry scores within the Higg Index. These topics included ethical rubber sourcing, science-based targets, chemicals substitution and sustainable packaging trends.
Ethical Rubber Sourcing—What’s The Issue?
Natural rubber sourcing is causing some sustainability concerns, and it’s not the material, itself, that is inherently problematic. Rather, the issue is how it’s sourced. When looking at footwear rubber greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions comparisons, natural rubber can have the lowest or highest emissions, all depending on the deforestation associated with its production. While natural rubber grown on degraded land is the best option, a lack of transparency in the rubber supply chain is contributing to large-scale deforestation. According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), natural rubber production is becoming a leading cause of deforestation in mainland Southeast Asia. For that reason, a representative from WWF—which has been working with Michelin, the world’s largest buyer of natural rubber, on its supply chain—recently spoke at the OIA Sustainability Insights Conference alongside speakers from Timberland and the Rainforest Alliance, who have also been working on this issue.
Why Does This Matter?
Ninety percent of the world’s natural rubber supply comes from Southeast Asia.
Rubber–related deforestation destroys carbon-rich forests and key habitats, including that of endangered and threatened species. The environmental impact associated with this deforestation is devastating and unnecessary.
As consumer awareness of this issue increases, there is an increasing risk to brand reputation for those companies sourcing rubber from deforested land.
There are also supply chain risks associated with sourcing natural rubber from land that has been deforested. In 2015 the Vietnam Rubber Group (VRG) was expelled from the world’s leading forest certification body, the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), after the FSC discovered that the company had illegally destroyed at least 50,000 hectares of forest for its rubber plantations in Cambodia, including wildlife sanctuaries and protected areas. As consumer awareness of this issue increases, there is an increasing risk to brand reputation for those companies sourcing rubber from deforested land.
Sustainable Business Innovation: Join the Movement
What Is Being Done?
Michelin has begun tracing its entire rubber supply chain and is the first tire company to commit to responsible rubber sourcing. General Motors is the first automaker to announce tire procurement guidelines that aim to ensure zero deforestation and uphold human and labor rights.
Since early 2015, WWF and Michelin have worked in Sumatra’s Thirty Hills landscape to design deforestation-free, wildlife–friendly plantations that provide sustainable income for local communities.
While 75 percent of the world’s natural rubber goes into making tires for planes, buses, cars and trucks used in shipping and transport, both WWF and the Rainforest Alliance have been reaching out to apparel and footwear companies as well to promote more awareness around rubber sourcing and to encourage companies to adopt zero-deforestation policies.
Outdoor industry companies like Patagonia and Timberland have begun to address this issue. Patagonia identified an opportunity to reduce carbon emissions by up to 80 percent by transitioning from Neoprene to natural rubber wetsuits and, by partnering with the Rainforest Alliance, was able to audit and certify the entire supply chain from rubber plantation to finished product. Organizations like the Rainforest Alliance and WWF hope that if other outdoor industry companies begin to adopt zero-deforestation policies, it will help increase consumer awareness and support the scale of ethical rubber sourcing across other industries as well as inspire innovation around product and materials development.
According to both the WWF and Rainforest Alliance, the best way to ensure more responsible production of rubber is to grow trees for rubber production on degraded land instead of clearing natural forests to plant them. Zero-deforestation policies can help support this practice. WWF asks companies to make and/or source only natural rubber produced in “Go Zones” defined by High Conservation Value Resource Network, High Carbon Stock Approach Network, Free Prior & Informed Consent by communities with tenure rights. Both WWF and the Rainforest Alliance also encourage companies to begin asking questions around where their rubber is grown.
According to both the WWF and Rainforest Alliance, the best way to ensure more responsible production of rubber is to grow trees for rubber production on degraded land instead of clearing natural forests to plant them.
What’s Can You Do?
- Begin reviewing your own supply chain. Engage suppliers, buyers and the R&D team
- Commit to deforestation–free sourcing of natural rubber and other high–risk materials
- Collaborate with NGOs such as Rainforest Alliance and WWF to identify unique opportunities within your supply chain
- Participate in pre-competitive groups such as OIA’s Sustainability Working Group
- Invest in the communities and farmers who rely on your business
- Begin creating the sustainable pathway toward sustainable natural rubber for your company
Sources: WWF, Rainforest Alliance, Timberland, Patagonia