Keeping Forests Standing: The Beating Heart of a Sustainable Food System

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16 November 2018

Forests are at the heart of today’s global environmental crises, biodiversity loss and climate change. Despite a decade of NGO campaigning, government investment and corporate certification pledges, deforestation remains stubbornly and unsustainably high. WWF recently launched its 2018 Living Planet Report, which showed that we’ve lost 60% of animal life globally in just 40 years and that the “key drivers of biodiversity decline are over exploitation and agriculture.” As Colin Butfield, Executive Director of WWF, stated, “we’re the first generation to know the full impact of what we’re doing to our planet, and the last that has the chance to do anything about it.”

On the other hand, the IPCC’s 1.5C report showed that protecting and extending forests could deliver 30% of the greenhouse gas emission reductions we need to achieve by 2030. Keeping forests standing is the simplest and cheapest option we have to turn the tide on climate change and biodiversity loss.

At M&S, we’ve recognised the importance of ecosystems and forests when we launched our sustainability programme Plan A in 2007. We’re proud that our partnership with WWF helped to fund the Heart of Borneo project. Within our supply chains, we’ve identified soy, cocoa and palm oil, where through our sourcing decisions, NGO partnerships and cross sector collaboration, we’ve been able to make a meaningful difference.

Soy

Global soybean production has increased 15 times since 1950, the majority of which is grown for animal feed. Much of it comes from South America, grown in areas such as Amazon and the Cerrado with all the associated risks of forest and habitat loss.

From our three-year partnership with Cool Earth, working on rainforests in Peru through to our ambitious zero-deforestation targets and our founding of the Cerrado Manifesto, we are working hard to play a part in this complex area. Although M&S is not one the biggest retailers, we know our voice and action has had a positive impact, both within our supply chains and in enabling a change among larger organisations including our competitors. We want to ensure the debate continues and encourage others to act with us.  

Palm Oil

Palm oil is the most widely used vegetable oil in the world and just like soy, it’s heavily implicated in deforestation, this time in South East Asia.

In 2017, we used 4,725 tonnes of palm oil in M&S products – 90% in Food and the rest in our Beauty products – and 97% of our total use was RSPO (Roundtable Sustainable Palm Oil) certified (99% in Food). We topped up the remainder (ingredients with small fractions of palm oil) with RSPO palm oil certificates to ensure that 100% of our palm is certified responsibly sourced.

But we know that just putting our ‘own house in-order’ is not enough. We have focussed on collaborative action with other likeminded organisations to get 20% of global production to a sustainable place. But it’s far short of where we need it to be, and we know progress is too slow across the total global marketplace.

So, what’s the alternative?  To boycott palm oil and walk away from a burning issue would be wrong. Firstly, if responsible buyers shun palm oil, there is no active voice encouraging producers to change. Rapidly growing marketplaces across South East Asia are not yet sending a sustainability ask to the industry.

Secondly the alternatives to palm oil, such as soy bean oil, shea butter or coconut oil, all require more land to grow and are no more sustainably produced today than palm oil. Key stakeholders such as WWF and the Orangutan Land Trust are encouraging us to work with the palm oil industry to help it reform. 

What are we doing instead?

  • We are standing by our commitment to responsibly sourced palm oil – and we will continue to champion improvements with the Roundtable on Responsible Palm Oil.
  • In the UK, we play an active role in holding the palm oil importers to account through the Palm Oil Traceability Coalition.
  • We are working with Forum for the Future to carry out leading research on the wider fats and oils sector, so that we fully understand the impact of other oils – this will be a public report that will be shared next year.
  • We have been a leading contributor to industry groups such as the Consumer Goods Forum and we are delighted today that the new principals and criteria for the Roundtable on Responsible Palm Oil have been passed. This will make the standard much more robust, with greater protection for the human rights of palm oil workers and we hope over the coming years, it will show that responsible palm oil is the right thing to do.

To ‘cut and run’ from a problem or to ‘stand and fight to put it right’ is an issue that businesses like M&S, which has long been committed to sustainability, faces continually and is likely to face more of in the future.

The issue of deforestation is particularly complex, and we know that we cannot do this on our own.  We play active roles in industry groups relating to palm and soy. We’ve worked hard to really understand traceability in our supply chain and engage suppliers that are often the purchasers of our raw materials.  

We remain steadfast in our goal to achieve zero deforestation. We firmly believe that we are making progress and now is not the right time to walk away, but rather to redouble our collective efforts and demonstrate how we can help nature and people thrive by good forestry management.

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