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Companies Can Stave off Forest Tipping Points

Panda in Chengdu

What does it take to make a forest collapse ecologically? How can the corporate sector prevent this collapse of its natural capital?

According to Kerry Cesareo, vice president of the Forests Program at World Wildlife Fund (WWF), there are threats to the natural capital of the private sector that lie outside its current practices and need to be addressed. Along with traditional conservation programs and partnerships, the private sector is seeking to play a larger role in investing in programs that keep forests from reaching their ecological tipping points.

Just one company uses one percent of the entire world’s commercially harvested wood: IKEA. Apple used 131,000 metric tons of fiber for packaging in 2016. Chocolate companies and production are a major source of deforestation in West Africa, with 10 percent of Ghana’s tree cover having been replaced by cacao in the early 2000s.

While these are all companies with major impacts, they are also companies investing in greater forest conservation.

Traditionally, private-sector conservation investments focus on supply chain-sourcing risks and resource-use efficiency. Many companies have made commitments to use only sustainably harvested products certified by Forest Stewardship Council™ (FSC), have a more efficient use of paper, or buy tracts of land to set aside as easements.

Despite the corporate sustainability efforts in place, the forest loss continues. Since there are fewer and fewer forest acres every year, organizations are concerned about the limits of existing working forests. The Living Planet Index, published by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), estimated that almost 50 percent of historic tropical and/or subtropical dry broadleaf forests has been lost by 2000 alone. This rate of loss continues.

There is a next step for companies - restoring forests. If a large company chooses to begin sustainable sourcing practices, then that does not guarantee that the amount of sustainable forest will grow. After decades of overuse, restoration is what is needed for resilient forest systems.

As forest habitats and biodiversity are continually diminished, many researchers are evaluating what the ecological tipping points will be for these ecosystems.


The risk of reaching a tipping point gives companies reason to cover more than just their own current supply chains. Thus, the next step in the evolution of private-sector investment in forest conservation should involve reforestation efforts that occur before these habitats and their resources reach these irreparable ecological tipping points.

At the GreenBiz 18 conference on Feb. 6-8 in Phoenix, Ariz., Apple and WWF presented on their joint forest-conservation initiative in China, a part of this next step in private-sector forest conservation and investments. Cesareo said the program aims “to secure forests beyond current needs of the company.”

What started as a dinner-party conversation between Apple leaders has turned into a forest-management investment initiative in the United States and China that goes beyond existing responsible sourcing practices. Apple started with a donation of 32,400 acres of conservation easements in Maine and over 3,600 acres in North Carolina. Moving past this goal involved looking into where the sourcing originates and seeing how these decisions could improve forest management.

After calculating how much paper fiber it uses in its packaging, Apple translated that into an acreage amount: approximately one million. Instead of just sourcing that from existing FSC-certified working forests, Apple has decided to also invest in expanding the amount of working forests to match this acreage goal. In other words, the company plans to add to the selection of healthy forests that are managed well.

The five-year Apple and WWF project in southern China began in 2015 and has three goals. The first is to have up to 300,000 acres of additional working forests brought up to FSC-certified levels and to have up to 700,000 acres under improved management. The latter consists of improved management of working land with private company certificates or government/state certificates.

To date, Apple has surpassed the first part of the goal with 320,000 acres under FSC certification and 430,000 under improved management. Apple worked with two major companies in the Hunan and Guangxi provinces on this goal, according to its 2017 Environmental Responsibility Report.

As part of the second goal, Apple hopes to improve the policies in place in China created by major companies and the government to encourage better forest stewardship through knowledge sharing. According to speakers at the GreenBiz conference, this includes working with the Chinese government on defining best management practices for forest management and conservation.

A major outcome under this goal has been the Sustainable Plantation Guidelines created with WWF and China’s State Forestry Administration. The guidelines will be used for better forest management of over seven million acres of forest in China’s National Reserved Forestry Program.

The final goal is to ensure that there continue to be market incentives for well-managed forests. Part of that consists of working with WWF on securing commitments to improve forest management from eight companies in China representing over 450,000 acres. Another part includes support of WWF’s consumer-awareness campaign with the China Sustainable Paper Alliance, which has reached over 20 million people.

IKEA is another major company working on protecting forests outside of its direct sourcing needs and to protect their natural capital into the future. The company set a “forest-positive by 2020” goal.

Forest-positive goals aim to develop practices that restore more forests than are used. This is similar to carbon-positive goals that work to sequester more carbon than is emitted.


The IKEA program has added 865 million acres of FSC-certified forests and hopes to add another 24.7 million by 2020. IKEA has invested over €3 billion in resource and energy programs that aim to grow and protect the future of its natural capital beyond what it needs for sourcing.

The most recent addition of 25,000 acres in early 2018 is the company’s first United States forest property acquisition. 250,000 acres of forests in Romania and the Baltic states make up IKEA’s other acquisitions.

Barry Callebaut, one of the world’s largest chocolate producers, also announced a forest-positive goal. The company hopes to be forest- and carbon-positive by 2025. As part of its plan, the company said that if “industry does not commit to reducing its carbon footprint and achieve zero net deforestation in its supply chain, the ecosystem that provides chocolate ingredients will rapidly erode.” This echoes the need for programs that add back forests for the long-term stability of those resources.

Corporate investors in forest-conservation projects are creating spaces where they are tackling large-scale, long-term conservation issues outside of their supply chains to protect forests as part of their natural capital.

Apple, IKEA and others have begun to quantify their paper usage to inform their natural capital initiatives. The next step in this area, according to Cesareo, is to have more accurate and consistent metrics for forests that companies and governments can use. For example, how do we measure a healthy forest? And how much forest land is needed?

“What gets measured gets managed,” as the well-known management consultant Peter Drucker said. This information will be helpful in setting targets for a larger network of companies to understand what truly needs to happen for them to adopt and maintain goals that are needed for the future of forests. And the broader community of those in support of forest conservation can use this information to reach agreement on a definition for the concept. This move could help to keep forests below their tipping points.

Note: GreenBiz is one of Conservation Finance Network's content partners.

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