It’s estimated that over 5 million hectares of natural forest were converted to rubber plantations between 2003 and 2017 in mainland Southeast Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. Renewed ambition to tackle deforestation as a major driver of climate emissions was set out at the UNFCCC climate conference (COP26). Later this year the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) COP15 will seek to stimulate similar momentum for biodiversity conservation. The US, UK and EU all have proposed demand-side legislation pending which will seek to eliminate deforestation-linked commodities from their markets. This month, the Global Platform for Sustainable Natural Rubber (GPSNR) helped push forwards voluntary commitments in the natural rubber sector at its 2022 General Assembly.

ZSL has been a member of GPSNR since 2019. Several members of the SPOTT team sit on various working groups and are active members of the Civil Society Organisations (CSO) Caucus. GPSNR was developed by industry but is now a truly multistakeholder platform, including representation not only from CSOs including ZSL, WWF, MightyEarth, Proforest, HCVN, HCSA, Rainforest Alliance, FSC and the Basel Institute for Governance, but also from producers, processors, traders, tyre makers, car manufacturers and, vitally, 135 smallholders or groups from 10 countries. Today GPSNR members represent more than 55% of natural rubber global demand. So, the opportunity is clear – change commitments of GPSNR members and you change sustainability of the rubber sector.

That’s why we participate in this scheme. Sometimes progress can seem glacial and fairly fundamental environmental, social and governance (ESG) assurances can be hard-won. However, in recent years we’ve seen members adopt various requirements which are ratcheting ESG requirements on members and helping bring more transparency. These include:  

  • GPSNR Policy Framework – which ensures that all members align their corporate sustainability policies with a set of core GSPNR commitments, and to which continued membership is linked.
  • GPNSR Reporting Requirements – which set standardised requirements for data to be submitted to GPSNR to demonstrate that member policy commitments are being put into practice. 
  • GPSNR Grievance Mechanism – a mechanism to provide for amicable redress and remedy of grievances to improve relations between parties where concerns are raised.
  • Smallholder inclusion and capacity building – various projects aimed at rolling out Good Agricultural Practices and expanding GPSNR’s reach to the mass of smallholder producers.

The past year has been particularly challenging as we’ve continued to work remotely due to the pandemic. Despite best efforts from all members, working group sessions are simply much more productive when we can sit across the table from one another and share experiences. For one thing it helps us carve out more dedicated time to work through issues. In May this year, GPSNR working group members did manage to meet in Singapore for an intensive week of in-person working group session and this really saw the pace accelerate.   

The result of this was some fundamental changes to how the natural rubber sector will operate in the future. We were heartened to see key motions passed at the 4th GPSNR General Assembly this month, including key motions on:

  • Transparency requirements for members – requiring publication of a large amount of data on natural rubber supply chains and sustainability performance submitted by members for their reporting requirements. Although we only secured agreement for year 1, a commitment to increased transparency over years 2 and 3 will see more data become available. This move will position the rubber sector as one of the most transparent soft-commodity sectors and shine a light on how corporate commitments are being implemented and monitored.
  • Shared Responsibility – a motion allowing the build out of a model for knowledge and financial resources to be shared equitably in the supply chain and targeted to where they can have maximum impact. In simple terms, this motion will push forward proposals for GPSNR members to pay into a natural rubber trust fund based on the volume of global rubber supply they consume, which can then be distributed to smallholder producers at the farm level to tackle deforestation and other environmental and social risks. This model is ground-breaking and sees GPSNR push beyond traditional collective efforts of sustainability schemes.

So, whilst progress can sometimes seem slow in multistakeholder initiatives, it’s worth remembering that large scale structural shifts towards sustainability can be made. GPSNR has much more to do to ensure robust sustainability requirements over the coming years. Here are a few of ZSL’s priorities that we’ll be pushing for as part of GPSNR:

  • Develop risk assessment tools for members to use as part of supply chain due diligence and reduce cost of members duplicating efforts. There is a benefit to members being able to select their own service providers for deforestation monitoring and capacity building with smallholders, but certain key datasets such as indicative landscape level High Conservation Value maps would help all members to save cost and act more quickly to address risk in supply chains. What we want to see is members investing in risk mitigation to prevent environmental and social harms, so GPSNR plays a key role in supporting members on risk assessment tools to enable members to focus resources on tackling issues rather than simply identifying them.
  • Develop a functional assurance model that will bring together existing requirements on policy commitments and ESG reporting requirements with new components to allow for improved traceability, landscape level due diligence and monitoring and verification of ESG claims. The assurance model will further ratchet requirements and move companies beyond having clear policy commitments and ESG reporting, but will interrogate the integrity of those claims, ensuring that all members are monitoring deforestation, providing capacity building to smallholders, implementing free, prior and informed consent with local communities, reducing carbon emissions, improving water use and protecting soils.
  • Ensure greater representation from three key stakeholder groups;
    1. CSOs focussed on Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities (IPLC) rights, to ensure that GPSNR’s ambitions for protecting IPLCs are implemented in the most robust manner possible in the CSO caucus and working groups which help decide GPSNR standards.
    2. Smallholder groups, to ensure the growth of best practice within smallholder sectors all around the world. It’s estimated that 6 million smallholders produce more than 85% of global natural rubber production. So GPSNR’s goal should always be to expand its reach in this community.
    3. Financial institutions who fund the natural rubber sector. From our research we know key US financial institutions like Vanguard Group, Blackrock and Dimensional Fund Advisors as well as Japanese Nomura Group, Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group, Nikko Asset Management all have exposure to the natural rubber sector and should be joining GPSNR to push existing members for higher ambition as well as requiring non-members to join.
  • Communicate impact by building a clear monitoring and evaluation framework that will allow aggregation of ESG data generated under the assurance model, as well as supplementing this with additional data where necessary, to allow GPSNR to clearly demonstrate whether its action has resulted in reduced deforestation, improved livelihoods for local communities and increased security for Indigenous peoples and local communities.   

GPNSR is certainly still in its infancy and despite members aligning around a clear Theory of Change, there is a continued need to ensure members are pulling in the same direction. There is a need to accelerate the pace of change and ensure that GPNSR does not become a greenwashing exercise but has strict compliance requirements for members. However, the momentum and shared ambition is there across the membership categories. And with this momentum ZSL will continue to participate as an active member of GPSNR, to drive the sector towards standards that we feel will protect biodiversity and ensure a world where wildlife thrives.