The year 2020 was supposed to be when the world solved the problem of falling forests. Instead, deforestation hit a 12-year high. Hundreds of big companies pledged to stop deforestation by 2020, but only four truly followed through, according to a new report out Monday from CDP, a nonprofit that tracks corporate commitments.
"We had 10 years to implement these commitments," said Sareh Forouzesh, CDP's associate director for forests. "We have not seen the progress we need."
Back in 2010, the collection of CEOs who make up the Consumer Goods Forum signed a pledge to eliminate deforestation throughout their supply chains by 2020. As the years passed, the initiative gained momentum and hundreds more companies signed up. And in 2014, more businesses doubled down with the New York Declaration on Forests. Some of the corporate giants who promised they were going to make big changes — like Cargill, McDonald's, and Walmart — could have made a real difference. These are companies with the market power to force change worldwide. But they didn't even hit their own targets.
Forests provide habitat for endangered species like orangutans, and they also keep the human habitat — Earth — livable. When forests burn they transform from carbon filters, removing CO2 from the atmosphere, to plumes of greenhouse gases. The best evidence from the United Nation's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change suggests that the world must be growing more trees than it cuts down by 2030 to have a chance of keeping the Earth below 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F) of warming.
"We know what to do," Forouzesh said. "There is no more excuse for inaction."
Four companies succeeded in backing up their words with deeds, according to the report: toilet-paper company Essity, the cosmetics giant L'Oréal, the chocolate titan Mars, and food packager Tetra Pak. These companies did a lot of work, but none of it was rocket science. They set up "no-deforestation" certification schemes, and told their suppliers that they needed to make sure they were not tearing down forests to produce cocoa and paper.
The majority of companies failed because they didn't commit the time and money necessary to accomplish the monumental task. Corporations could have simply dropped any supplier that refused to comply, but they've mostly avoided that strategy. That's because as long as some corporations aren't committed to cutting deforestation, suppliers could just shift to less responsible buyers. "This isn't about a few bad apples, we need to move entire sectors," Forouzesh said. "If these companies engage with their suppliers, they can bring them along. If they exclude them, then their influence over that supplier ends."
Most of the companies that have made pledges have at least started opening up their sourcing data, so activists and investors can measure what progress they've made, CDP found.