Stopping deforestation: can corporate companies make a difference?


Danone recently issued a “Forests Policy”, co-created with Rainforest Alliance, with the aim of eliminating the deforestation of its supply chain, and supporting reforestation programmes. The group is not the only one to take action, as the lack of law enforcement regarding the issue of deforestation often leaves corporate companies with the responsibility of constraining themselves. Their initiatives are absolutely necessary, but they are only part of the solution.


Forests cover 30% of our planet’s land surface. They are home to thousands of animal and plant species, and to 300 million people. They are indispensable for the survival of our planet and its inhabitants, because they sequestrate carbon, provide water to local populations, protect against natural disasters (floods, desertification, etc.) and preserve biodiversity. Yet forests are in constant decline. According to the FAO, the equivalent of a football field is lost every two seconds. Every year, forests lose a surface area equal to roughly a quarter of France.

From 2000 to 2010, they decreased by 13 million hectares a year, with a net deforestation estimated at 5.2 million hectares each year. According to the organisation Greenpeace, this deforestation now accounts for 15 to 20% of greenhouse gas emissions. In Indonesia, it is estimated by the World Bank that 72% of the original forest cover has been destroyed, with a loss of 2 million ha/year since 2001.

Who is to blame for this ecological disaster? In a 2001 report, the Institute for Climate Impact Research established the main causes of deforestation as agriculture (land conversion for crops and the cattle industry), urban development, mining and unsustainable timber management. The countries where risk is significant are Indonesia, Brazil, Congo, Thailand, Malaysia, Australia, Bolivia, Venezuela, Mexico, Argentina, Ivory Coast, Ghana… In every one of these countries, with all their national specificities, laws, cultures and habits, efficiently tackling the problem of deforestation is a burning issue. Responding to this issue is the task of organisations such as Greenpeace, which campaign and lobby to raise awareness and bring along systemic shifts, and of others like Rainforest Alliance, which see themselves as “educators and collaborators”, to quote Mark Comolli, Director of Markets at Rainforest Alliance. But they alone are not enough: everyone has to take their share of responsibility, and do their bit.

Taking responsibility

“Everyone” includes corporate companies, of course. To address their specific role, we talked to Vincent Crasnier, Nature Director  at Danone. The group recently issued a Forests Policy defining its goals and guidelines for fighting deforestation. To Vincent Crasnier, this policy more or less covers a range of actions already under way for several years, and it is

an essential brick in Danone’s strategy on Nature, particularly over the next few years.

This is a two-pronged policy: firstly Danone undertakes to eliminate deforestation from its supply chain by 2020, by developing specific sourcing strategies for commodities associated with high deforestation risk – mainly palm oil and paper and cardboard (specific guidelines for soy, cane sugar, timber for energy and bio-based plastic will be defined with stakeholders and communicated step by step). For paper and cardboard, the group already sources around 75% of its supply from recycled fibres. For the remaining 25% of “virgin” fibre, they have co-created a sourcing strategy with Rainforest Alliance, an international expert in certification and sourcing of forest products, to ensure that the materials come from sustainable, responsibly managed forests. The other “prong” of the policy is to fund reforestation projects. The group has been doing this for a number of years now through two of its funds, Ecosystem and Livelihoods, which support projects in agroforestry, the replanting of mangroves, etc. For Vincent Crasnier, defining this policy has given Danone a wider and more accurate picture of the deforestation issue and a better understanding of the role it could play:

It is the responsibility of companies and brands to act on their own activities so that they do not contribute to deforesting.

He believes that once the major players start intervening and talking about it, this will influence other companies in the sector to get on board and increase the impact. Because this is an emergency. At Greenpeace, they say that we are engaged in an actual race: we do not have 20 or 30 years to make change happen; we have a mere 10 years to reverse the trend. Vincent Crasnier explains that if deforestation continues at the same rate in Indonesia, there will be nothing left 20 years from now. But the sense of emergency is not shared by everyone, and even when it is, there are many obstacles along the way.

Obstacles mustn’t become barriers

First, deforestation is not sufficiently regulated. At national levels, including in high-risk countries, there are laws to control it most of the time, but because of corruption, or the lack of a legal basis enabling their enforcement, they are more often than not simply ignored. At European level (as well as in the United States), a decision making it illegal to import illegal wood, and requiring more effective traceability, has recently been taken – it says nothing about the sustainable management of the forests from which legal wood should be sourced, but it is already a step in the right direction. At international level, there are almost no regulations, and no international treaties with a part involving constraint. Thus, it is often left to private companies to decide whether or not they want to protect the forests. That is partly why Rainforest Alliance focuses on helping companies adopt more sustainable methods: they do not see a solution in keeping operators away from forests, but in ensuring that they do it the right way. . Greenpeace does note that trying to influence companies is often more  effective in the short term than addressing the governments: they are less permeable to lobbies, they are very anxious to preserve their reputations, and once they are convinced that something is good for them, they can quickly adjust and take action. Vincent Crasnier agrees, but notes one major difficulty: companies never work alone. When it comes to wood management, and thus supply, taking action often means getting more than one supplier on board as well – and this can take time. Time that does nothing to help the urgency of the situation. But Vincent Crasnier stresses:

Just because it is hard, it most certainly does not mean that we should do nothing. And companies the size of Danone do have the power to make change happen faster, especially if they work together.

At the end of the day, if all its major clients demanded traceability, it would be in any supplier’s interest to develop appropriate processes. In fact, in the absence of the effective regulations desired by everyone, interest is what drives the whole thing. Reputation, of course, is a major issue for corporate companies; this means they want to be and appear consistent in everything they do. For a company like Danone, which has put a twofold economic and social project at the heart of its strategy, it makes sense to work on securing its supply chain. Business is also a strong argument: while it is true that sustainable sourcing does cost more than irresponsible deforestation in the short term, in the long run it will be less expensive for the environment, for the people who depend on forests, and for the companies, which will still have a reliable supply source decades from now.

As customers and managers become more and more aware of their impact and responsibility, the issue of preserving the environment, and thus of deforestation, is now being addressed by most of the major players, with varying degrees of success and failure. Vincent Crasnier also stresses that companies do not represent the whole truth, and that they are only a part of the solution. But this is mainly true of the developed world. The real challenge for tomorrow lies in the developing countries, where environmental issues often come last, well behind growth and productivity. This is where educating consumers is crucial; this is where effective regulations that are actually enforced are so badly needed; this is where multinational companies need to be an example and a driving force for other players; this is where business interests and social and environmental interests need to merge much more quickly that they have done so far in our countries. We have had time to adjust our ways, and there is still a great deal to be done. The developing world will not have as long a period to change, if we really want to put an end to deforestation.

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