Can Consumer Goods Companies Achieve Zero Deforestation by 2020?

A version of this post was originally published on the Guardian Sustainable Business blog.

boy carrying oil palm in Liberia

Liberian boy carrying bucket of oil palm fruit. In its effort to reach zero net deforestation by 2020, the Consumer Goods Forum is focusing on improving practices in the production of four commodities, including palm oil. (© CI/photo by Rob McNeil)

The flurry of excitement in 2010 around the Consumer Goods Forum (CGF) announcement that its 400+ members would work together to achieve zero net deforestation by 2020 was palpable. Those of us in the climate community had the “aha” moment we had been waiting for — finally the private sector would join us in combating one of the fastest-growing contributors to climate change: deforestation.

With the endless commentary on how global population will topple the 9 billion mark by 2050, how food production must grow by an astounding 70% to meet the growing need and how only one in six people have access to clean water, these companies were committing to making a crucial investment in how our planet mitigates and adapts to climate change. The NGO community was abuzz with what we believed to be a monumental milestone — everything seemed to be on the right track.

It’s been over two years since that commitment was announced, and my confidence in its significance has not waned. However, with the exception of a quick injection of activity around Rio+20 last June — when the U.S. government pledged to help the CGF with its commitment — many companies are still scratching their heads and wondering where to begin. Meanwhile, deforestation continues to wipe out an area the size of Costa Rica year after year.

It’s true that supply chains are complex, and there are challenging issues to grapple with, including political instability, market failures and price volatility. Those challenges certainly will not go away — and they will likely worsen if climate change continues to devastate our food production. Instead, companies need to showcase their leadership at this crucial time, with less than seven years remaining to reach the 2020 commitment.

One CGF member company that is making efforts in moving the ball forward is Nestlé, which produces goods ranging from coffee and ice cream to pasta and fruit juice. In 2012, Nestlé and CI began working together to better understand the challenges that deforestation presents to business.

In order to guide Nestlé’s sourcing strategy, we began to analyze top commodity-producing countries most affected by deforestation, from the expansion of livestock farming in Brazil to palm oil development in Liberia. From there, CI performed an extensive review of existing research and data on historic deforestation rates and agricultural trends to begin to connect the dots between agricultural sourcing and deforestation.

The result is a series of what we are calling “Deforestation Guides for Commodity Sourcing,” or “Guides,” that provide Nestlé with significant spatial data to help prioritize its sustainable sourcing commitments. Additionally, CI performed some initial research linking regional deforestation to agricultural sourcing in each of the 32 countries Nestlé has prioritized based on its own research and data collection.

map of annual rate of deforestation in Brazil.

Average annual rate of deforestation in Brazil. National deforestation estimates in percent and agricultural statistics are from FAO (2010). Mapped sub-national estimates of the Deforestation Indicators in hectares are indicative only, given the resolution of the data source, and are from CI (2011), derived from the MODIS percent tree-cover change product for 2000 to 2005 (Hansen et al 2009).

Despite our hard work, the need for more in-depth and accurate analysis on deforestation and how it is affected by demand for agricultural commodities has never been greater. Even with companies firmly committed to changing their practices for the better, there remains an enormous amount of uncertainty as to the best way to invest in sustainable agriculture to meet the CGF pledge.

The CGF has specifically targeted four commodities to direct its commitment: soy, palm oil, beef and paper & board. While the precise figures are not yet available, we estimate that in Brazil alone, the production of soy has wiped out more than 82 million hectares (200 million acres) of savanna in the Cerrado region, where soy has become one of the largest export crops.

While the Guides are the most accessible and user-friendly maps and tools yet available to guide companies on deforestation rates, much more information — and action — is needed to solve the growing problem of deforestation within agricultural sourcing. Building on the analysis CI and Nestlé have already completed, members of the CGF must take these additional steps in order to reach their goal of zero net deforestation by 2020:

  1. Produce better data to more fully capture the link between local political and socioeconomic contexts and drivers of deforestation from agriculture.
  2. Share knowledge and best practices, as well as build capacity within the business sector and among NGO partners, governments and other entities engaged in deforestation and land-use dialogues.
  3. Create a robust stakeholder engagement and community development process for addressing key agricultural drivers in specific areas of sourcing for key commodities (palm oil, soy, sugarcane, coffee, cocoa, beef, dairy, pulp and paper).

In the coming months, the CGF will hold their annual meeting to address progress they have made in tackling deforestation, among other sustainability commitments. I’m encouraged by their collective action thus far, and look forward to the promising results that can come from such powerful forces in business making decisions that benefit threatened forests and address the broader climate challenge.

Joanne Sonenshine is the director of sustainable food and agriculture markets in CI’s Center for Environmental Leadership in Business.


  1. Leonardo Saenz says

    HI Joanne,

    Great blog – I really like the way you frame the next steps needed to ensure 0 deforestation.
    On the data angle, I would like to bring to you attention, Terra i ( Terra I is a platform that detects land-cover changes resulting from human activities in near real-time, producing updates every 16 days. It currently runs for the whole of Latin America and is being expanded over the next year to cover the entire tropics. King’s College and CIAT, as well as the nature conservancy have developed and piloted the tool and it has some very useful statistics on the degree of deofrestation by biome in Brazil, for instance. Terra i is connected to waterworld and we are running assessments of the impacts of deforestation on eco-hydrological services. The data can also be used to tract the sources of deforestation, when associated with on the ground experience.
    Hope you find it useful.
    Best wishes, leo

  2. Laura says

    I find it interesting that Nestle’ and CI have teamed up in any capacity. Is Nestle’ going to start seriously reconsidering its bottled water practices, as well as its role in the food industry? Conservation starts with sustainable practices, and bottled water certainly does not permit that.

  3. sylvia jones says

    I’m sorry but I don’t understand how a partnership with Nestle could lead to any improvement for humanity. They don’t believe in or promote free water for anyone in the world!!!

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