The ‘Zero Deforestation’ Movement

JEI Working Paper 4

Urs Dieterich
Yale University

The “Zero Deforestation” Movement: Putting Companies in the Driving Seat
Stakeholder opinions and analysis of current concepts and possible ways forward

Executive Summary

Remarkable dynamics have unfolded in the year 2014 in several aspects of corporate responsibility, climate advocacy, and sustainable investing. Since 2013, the green bonds market has tripled in size, justifying hopes for a gradual alignment in the need for sustainable capital investments with appropriate investment vehicles. The New York Climate Summit has introduced a formal process for climate leadership beyond the UNFCCC, building on corporate leadership and regional initiatives. And a wave of “zero deforestation” (ZD) commitments has swept across a growing league of responsible companies. By drawing on 15 interviews, this paper discusses what ZD means to different stakeholders, how it can be implemented, and what some of the potential pitfalls might be as companies, civil society, and government act and respond to these new challenges and opportunities.

Recent policy dialog and company-driven leadership initiatives have put supply chains front and center of corporate responsibility. Increasing recognition for the interdependencies between economic performance and environmental, social, and governance aspects has sparked a dynamic dialog between the private sector, NGOs, technical advisers, and policymakers. Research results presented in this paper suggest that in order to reap the full benefits from the corporate momentum surrounding ZD, it is important to explore the full suite of possible strategies, mechanisms, and tactics of implementation. This includes options that are within the realm of corporations’ decision-making power, as well as options requiring the involvement of governmental policy instruments.

Several uncertainties remain regarding what ZD comprises. While deforestation can function as a buzzword, tactically leveraged to achieve broader sustainability outcomes, it is unclear what exactly this entails and how it might impact agricultural commodity production. While some stakeholders argue for a zero-net deforestation approach for reasons of feasibility and corporate engagement, others believe that newly planted forests cannot functionally replace ecologically more valuable natural forests and therefore, they support zero gross deforestation. Disagreement further exists as to the value of third-party certification and commodity roundtables. While some see universal standards as a cornerstone to spreading sustainable practices across an entire industry, others are unsatisfied with the progress achieved over the past years and see the need for strategies that ensure more than what is sometimes perceived as merely finding the least common denominator. One argument is that alternative approaches such as company-internal sustainability scorecards and sustainable sourcing schemes, or individual company–NGO partnerships, could be the way forward. The interviews suggest, given the increasing availability of technologies to ensure transparency and increase accountability, that the tools and processes deployed by companies, NGOs, and policymakers should evolve with these new possibilities and diverse stakeholder requirements.

This paper further discusses public-private partnerships, a possible ZD umbrella standard, and deforestation offsets, among others, as possible ZD strategies. Using the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, the Palm Oil Innovation Group, and the Sustainable Palm Oil Manifesto as examples, this paper also outlines some of the challenges in creating trust across stakeholder groups. Lastly, this paper lists a range of industry groups working on related sustainability topics, as well as a number of tools that companies, civil society, and policymakers can utilize to assess and monitor zero-deforestation commitments.

Ultimately, on-the-ground progress is what corporate forest conservation policies are assessed against. A challenge is that signatories of commitments can’t afford unlimited upfront investment without an outlook for economic returns within the foreseeable future. It is, therefore, in the hands of all stakeholders to contribute to meaningful implementation of the ambitious targets that have been set over the past months. The stakes are high and ZD may suffer from a gradual loss of significance similar to that experienced by voluntary sustainability commitments that have preceded it. Given these challenges, it is important to recognize that ZD is a dynamic movement, built on visionary leadership and momentum. Keeping this momentum alive will be instrumental in building on the important groundwork laid out by the zero deforestation movement.


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