VIRTUE-signalling on environmental issues has become endemic. The issue of deforestation is no exception. Almost any major company would jump at the chance to proclaim its devotion to protecting orangutans. Unfortunately, the truth behind the words is often disappointing.
The massive contribution to the deforestation problem by many industries is exposed in a new study, as shocking as it is revealing. Global Canopy, the group behind the study, describes itself as “a data-driven not-for-profit that targets the market forces destroying nature.”
It has released new findings from its Forest 500 project, which analysed the histories of 350 companies with the highest exposure to “forest-risk commodities” like beef, leather, timber, soy, and palm oil.
The findings on what these virtue-signalling companies have actually been doing to help tackle deforestation are, to say the least, disappointing.
An astounding 31% of the companies analysed have not made any commitments to reduce deforestation for any of the commodities to which they are vulnerable, according to the study. Volkswagen Group, the world’s largest automaker, and the Deichmann Group, a leading European footwear retailer, are two examples.
Global Canopy reports that “only half of these companies are actively monitoring their suppliers or sourcing regions in line with these policies — an essential step to deliver on headline commitments.” This is true even among those who have made various promises and pledges about dealing with those high-risk commodities.
The flawed top-down approach to solving environmental issues in corporate and political contexts is at the heart of this issue. Enormous, sweeping promises are made about revolutionising the way entire industries work over the course of several years – but they never follow through.
This pattern holds true across the world, and politicians are just as guilty of it as private companies. The actual legwork done by those on the ground to find accessible ways to do their jobs without chopping down more trees is ignored.
Governments are not exempt from this rule any more than private businesses are. In November of 2021, at COP26, world leaders settled on some lofty goals. They were unsuccessful, and three months into the schedule they were already behind. Then, in 2022, COP27 recommitted to most of the same goals, still without providing any proper strategy for achieving them.
This myopic perspective on problems like deforestation leads to short-termism, green virtue-signalling, and a never-ending stream of failures. As with the COP26 pledge to end deforestation by 2030, we have fallen into a never-ending cycle of world leaders and industry titans sharing a stage to set big, eye-catching goals – and then doing nothing to actually solve the problem, because all they’re interested in is virtue-signalling.
When they inevitably fall short of their targets, they reset them and start the process all over again, as if they’d learned nothing. Every time an announcement is made, the media chorus of some saying, “this is a ground-breaking step forward” and others saying “this goal isn’t ambitious enough” remains constant. Unfortunately, not enough people are wondering, “But how will this goal actually be achieved?”
This isn’t how things have to be. Businesses in the twenty-first century have no excuse for not innovating and adapting to become more environmentally friendly. Some industries have shown that you can make a real difference, rooting out deforestation from supply chains. Industry leaders in eliminating deforestation in their supply chains include the beef and palm oil sectors.
The UN Development Programme’s ‘Good Growth Partnership’ highlights the implementation of new “national standards” in Paraguay to tighten beef supply chains, ostensibly in collaboration with the industry, and the ringfencing of large tracts of land “so that planned agricultural expansion can avoid important conservation areas.”
Meanwhile, analysis by Global Canopy’s Forest 500 indicates that deforestation due to palm oil has dropped to a four-year low. More than a third of the world’s demand for vegetable oil is now met by palm oil, yet it only accounts for 4% of deforestation.
Pressure to adopt environmentally friendly policies has resulted in a rapid improvement in the industry’s commitment to sustainability in recent years. Ninety percent of Europe’s palm oil imports are considered sustainable, meaning that their production did not threaten any primary forest, natural habitats, or local communities and cultures.
Malaysian companies have fully embraced the global move to a more sustainable future. They include Sime Darby Plantation, the world’s largest producer of certified sustainable palm oil, which not only received a clean bill of health from US customs authorities but recently announced a commitment to being net-zero by 2050, in line with the Paris Agreement targets to limit global temperature rises to no more than 1.5°C.
The company also plans to reforest a huge 400-hectare area of peat plantations in Sabah and Sarawak, and to date, it has forest set-aside programmes of more than 40,000ha, with over 1.9 million forest trees planted. This is the opposite of green virtue-signalling – real, measurable action to make a difference on deforestation. Why can’t other industries do the same?
Sadly, Global Canopy’s findings reveal that other crucial industries, such as paper, soy, and many more, are falling behind on even setting targets for themselves, let alone meeting them. Those whose output consists mainly of lofty promises don’t appear to realise that they need to back them up with action.
Reducing deforestation is not a call for moral posturing without action. Virtue-signalling does not fool anyone any more. The public, both voters and shoppers, is becoming increasingly eco-aware. A delay in addressing deforestation is a hostage to fortune. Taking immediate action to safeguard their eco-friendly standing is essential. They need to walk the walk, not just talk the talk.