Top firms act on deforestation as UK urged not to ‘turn a blind eye’

A pioneering study has illustrated the overseas impact of UK imports on forests, wildfire and nature, as a host of global firms make pledges to help prevent deforestation in Brazil's tropical savanna.

A joint report from WWF and the RSPB claims that an overseas area the size of Greece would be needed by the UK to produce key imported consumer products including cocoa, palm oil, pulp and paper, rubber, soy and timber. Land equivalent to the size of Croatia is used to produce UK goods from places where deforestation, social risks and wildlife loss are serious issues, campaigners warn. 

WWF director of advocacy Lang Banks said that British businesses and consumers cannot continue to “turn a blind eye” to the deforestation and destruction that their consumption has on the planet.

“The consumer choices each one of us in the UK makes on a daily basis could be unwittingly helping to drive the devastation of important wildlife and habitats overseas,” Banks said. “This report only considers seven key commodities, so if we factor in others such as rice, coffee, tea then the size of our impact is likely to be even greater.”

He added: “As the UK Government prepares to publish a plan to improve the environment over the next 25 years it is crucial that we don’t just look at the UK but also our impact on the world. Global trade is vital, but we need the UK Government, business and the public to step up to the plate and play a crucial part in realising the scale of impact we are having on our world, and to protect it for future generations.”

Among the key findings of the report, researchers note that more than half of packaged supermarket products contain palm oil, 65% of which comes from Indonesia and Malaysia. Palm oil is responsible for up to a quarter of tree loss in Borneo, according to the study, and has reduced orangutan territory by 25% in 14 years.

The findings are similar for natural rubber, with half of all imports produced in these countries. Meanwhile, deforestation and wildlife loss are cited as major issues in Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay, where the majority of the UK’s soy is sourced from.

Brazil’s vast tropic savanna the Cerrado, home to 10,000 plant species and more than 16000 species of reptiles, mammals and birds, is thought to have lost around 50% of its natural landscape. The report claims that Cerrado, which once covered a quarter of Brazil, loses and area the size of London every two months.

Cerrardo Manifesto

The report acknowledges that some companies are leading the way in recognising the environmental and social risks of importing these commodities. Indeed, the launch of the study coincided with a meeting hosted by The Prince of Wales which saw 23 global companies such as Marks & Spencer (M&S), Tesco, Unilever and Walmart commit to tackle soy-driven deforestation in Cerrado.

The firms have pledged allegiance to the Cerrado Manifesto – launched in September 2017 by Brazilian and international NGOs – which calls for private actors to work with local and international stakeholders to halt forest and native vegetation loss in the region.  

M&S director of Plan A Mike Barry said the members were sending a “significant message” to the business community to share their goal.

“Brazil has already taken important steps to protect its forests but there’s more to do for the important Cerrado ecosystem,” Barry said. “23 businesses, that collectively have huge buying power, want to source deforestation-free soy and, by coming together in this way, are sending a significant message to the whole industry that such an important region must be protected.”

Barry’s thoughts were echoed by Unilever chief executive Paul Polman, who said that increasing agricultural production is compatible with protecting the Cerrado and its unique biodiversity.

“Today’s statement by 23 leading global businesses is a clear expression of support for smart policies and collaborative action to tackle deforestation and protect this invaluable region,” he said.

Of the 23 companies to have signed the manifesto, 18 have already committed to the Consumer Goods Forum’s resolution to achieve zero net deforestation by 2020.

Fishery monitoring

In a separate report launched by WWF today, it has been claimed that the UK Government is failing to comprehensively monitor UK fishing activities at sea. The study, published ahead of the UK Fisheries Bill, announced first in the 2017 Queen’s Speech, notes that less than 1% of UK fisheries are effectively monitored.

Researchers say that remote monitoring technology, a “pioneering” and “far more cost-effective” alternative, could make the UK a “world leader” in sustainable fishing post-Brexit. WWF said that recording 100% of activity and reviewing 10% of this for all UK vessels would cost around £5m, a quarter of the money spent on traditional systems which monitor far less.

Campaigners claim that the technology, which uses CCTV cameras, also helps to prevent illegal discards and potential overfishing, vital not just for fish stocks, but also to ensure consumer confidence.

“As the UK prepares to leave the EU we must take the opportunity to become a world leader in sustainable fishing,” WWF fisheries programme manager Helen McLachlan said.

“At the moment we simply do not know what’s happening on our fishing boats or how many fish are being taken out of our seas, and that’s putting jobs, fish stocks and the UK’s precious seas at risk.”

George Ogleby

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