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To ease deforestation, natural rubber industry must ‘paddle hard’ (commentary)

“All eyes in the rubber industry are currently turned towards the EU Deforestation Regulation. There are waves of opportunity that came before the EUDR and there are waves that will come after [but the] organizations that want to set themselves up for long term success will keep this in mind and paddle to good positions to ride all the incoming waves,” a new op-ed argues.

To ease deforestation, natural rubber industry must ‘paddle hard’ (commentary)
  • A recent study by the Royal Botanical Garden Edinburgh found that natural rubber related forest loss has been substantially underestimated and is at least two or three times higher than suggested by previous figures.

  • The same study shows that at least 2 million hectares of forest has been lost for rubber cultivation since 2000, while the supply chain has begun to come together to define and standardize key requirements for environmental benefit and social equity.

  • This article is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

Last October, I took some time off work at the Global Platform for Sustainable Natural Rubber (GPSNR) to learn how to surf. Surfing has always been a dream of mine and one of the more advanced surfing techniques is learning how to ride green waves (also known as unbroken waves). The image of surfers carving fearlessly across the gaping maw of the ocean is one of the pinnacles of surfing, which is all about riding green waves.

To successfully ride a green wave, you first have to assess the incoming “bumps” in the water that wash in from the open sea. Is this wave going to be big enough? Am I in the right place to catch it? Is someone else better set up to ride the wave? These questions are important both while sitting on a 8-foot piece of foam in the middle of the sea and in an office chair working on supply chain sustainability in downtown Singapore.

After finding a desirable wave, you have to angle your board in the right direction and paddle like your life depends on it. There is a sweet spot to start paddling. If you start too early, your arms will tire by the time the wave arrives and the wave is lost. If you start too late, you might be able to stand up, but you won’t have enough time to adjust and the water will wash you off your feet, dumping you into the salt spray. Timing is key, in both surfing and sustainability. A secret they don’t tell you is that the hardest part of surfing isn’t surfing – it’s paddling. Getting out into the ocean requires paddling, angling your board the right way requires paddling, catching a wave requires paddling. And paddling is really hard, unglamorous work.

But if you’ve gotten the paddling right, and if you’ve chosen the right wave, and if you pop up on your feet just right, the water does the rest of the work and carries you all the way back to shore, with the sunset flickering on the ripples behind you.

As we move into a new year, I am thinking about my surfing experience and how it reflects where the natural rubber industry is at. Right now there are lots of waves approaching the shore and few companies set up to ride them. Some of the waves will be magical and some of them will be duds, the tricky thing is that it’s hard to know which is which. Here are some waves that I think will turn into surfing opportunities, as long as companies are willing to start paddling.

Firstly, environmental information around rubber products is remarkably scarce and there are competitive advantages to be found in obtaining and sharing this information. Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) are catching on in other industries (such as the concrete industry) and these declarations inform customers about the environmental impacts of any product. The impact metrics within EPDs range from carbon emissions to water pollution. To produce these EPDs, many companies undertake Life Cycle Assessments of their products to calculate the “cradle to gate” impacts of production. As the world becomes more conscious of the environmental impacts of industry, requirements for these declarations are likely to become more onerous, whether through voluntary mechanisms (such as disclosures to investors) or mandatory means like legislation. Additionally, EPDs demonstrate that a product is empirically better in its production processes and companies with higher production standards should utilize environmental disclosures as a non-price competitive mechanism.

From an industry perspective, additional study and disclosure of environmental impacts would enable GPSNR to target capacity building funding in ways that yield more benefits per dollar. Right now, we don’t have the statistics to identify “hot-spots” of environmental impact throughout the supply chain. A consolidated industry approach to study and share data would enable GPSNR to help companies do the work of reducing impacts, benefitting the entire supply chain.

One way this consolidated effort would be effective is by targeting carbon emissions. With industries working hard and/or under pressure to cut emissions, Life Cycle Assessments enable companies to identify stages of production that are particularly polluting. Targeted investment at the company level or collective action at the industry level is likely to generate increasing returns to scale as compared to a “spray and pray” approach that distributes investments uniformly across the supply chain.

Another discussion that has stalled is the need for smallholder support to ensure supply chain security. Struggling with low rubber prices and low investment in rubber, farmers are now switching to other commodities en masse. Every rubber tree that is replaced by oil palm today is one less “deforestation-free” rubber source tomorrow. In the future, companies may struggle to source enough rubber from deforestation-free sources, especially once rubber prices rebound and demand grows. There are solutions and investments available today, but these require present-day leadership to commit to protecting the future of rubber and the security of its sources. Capacity building projects will help assuage rubber farmers that there is a future for the industry while also increasing yields and reducing environmental impacts. A value transfer mechanism that rewards smallholders for quantifiable sustainability improvements will also help to ensure the operational and environmental sustainability of rubber moving forward.

Taking off my GPSNR hat, there’s one other tire-related discussion that I’m hoping the industry can take the lead on – the health impacts of microplastics generated by tire wear. While this topic is outside the remit of GPSNR, I can’t help but think about potential health impacts that might arise from tire microplastics finding their way into soils, streams, reservoirs, and ultimately the ocean.

How prevalent is this form of pollution and what are the potential health and environmental impacts on the public? There are many unknowns to this discussion, but it feels more pressing as time goes on. The potential for these microplastics to end up in our food, water, and lungs could result in the Silent Spring of our time. There is an opportunity for the industry to take the lead on this discussion and initiate research and mitigation in good faith. This would demonstrate that the industry can be trusted, unlike other industries in the past and present. However, if tire makers are to take the lead on this, the paddling needs to start today.

Early on in my surf lessons, I kept missing green waves and often ended up falling off my board. When I asked my instructor whether there was any technique or skill I could adopt, he looked blankly at me and said: “Paddle. Paddle harder.” He then proceeded to yell at me to paddle harder for two hours, which was an interesting teaching technique. As I fell into the ocean over and over again, I started to see the importance of picking the right waves, getting the timing right, and paddling like my life depended on it. It took three full days of lessons before I finally rode my first unbroken wave, and it was indeed a glorious feeling.

All eyes in the rubber industry are currently turned towards the EU Deforestation Regulation, the biggest wave to wash up in a long while. This singular focus is understandable but I also see it as a risk. There are waves of opportunity that came before the EUDR and there are waves that will come after. The organizations that want to set themselves up for long term success will keep this in mind and paddle to good positions to ride all the incoming waves. If there’s one thing I learnt from my lessons, true skill isn’t just riding one big wave successfully but instead riding waves consistently, regardless of condition, and setting yourself up to be ready to take advantage of whatever else is coming in.

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