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How the Supply Chain Debate Reflects A Pro-Corporate Mentality


I am, of course, obsessed with issues of exploitation of labor and nature in our supply chains. After all, I am the extremely rare academic to be in the middle of turning my dissertation into a book on a tenure clock timeframe and decide I want to write a book that won’t count for tenure on the completely different topic of capital mobility and global exploitation too. There is a surprisingly robust literature on supply chains, but most of it comes out of business departments and thus is inherently pro-business. Moreover, because we live in an era where corporate plans to make us mistrust government and thus invest them with power are so successful, our discussions around supply chains and the exploitation of labor and nature that go on within them tend to just try to find ways to appeal to corporations to do better. That was very much the sense I got reading this piece on deforestation within the global supply chain.

Every year, humans cut down an area roughly the size of Maine in forest. With increasing awareness of the importance of forests for global biodiversity, indigenous livelihoods, and mitigating climate change, large corporations have begun to pledge that their products will not come from supply chains that support deforestation. According to a recent review paper, action by these big companies will be essential to saving the planet’s forests — but their pledges will have to do more than look good in a press release.

“If the few multinational companies who control most of the trade and processing of commodities make commitments that control the whole supply chain, it’s a necessary complement to global policies,” says Eric Lambin, a professor and senior fellow at the Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford University, and lead author of the paper in Nature Climate Change, speaking to Futurism. “It’s a remarkable trend that the market is moving in that direction — but we’re not there yet.”

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, beef, soy, palm oil, and wood products make up the biggest cause of deforestation, together with leading to the removal of around 3.83 million hectares (around 14,800 square miles) of forest every year.

Lambin’s review found that, as of March 2017, at least 447 private producers, processors, manufacturers, retailers, and traders had made a total of 760 public commitments to reducing the forest impact of such products. Yet this talk doesn’t always follow through.

When last assessed in 2016, only 20-25 percent of Consumer Goods Forum companies who made sustainability commitments had concrete plans to reduce deforestation. Among the Sustainability Consortium, a group of 43 corporations including General Mills, Mars, and Wal-Mart, efforts to preserve the most precious forest areas has been implemented in less than 50 percent of any commodity.

The answer is right there in the last paragraph. If you want to stop deforestation, you hold those corporations such as General Mills, Mars, and Wal-Mart legally accountable for how their products are created and processed. Appealing to the good will of Brazilian agribusiness is never going to work, not at least until the Brazilian government is strong enough and removed enough from rural landholder power to crack down on this, which don’t hold your breath. The entire idea of pledges to do better is ridiculous. When profit is on the line, a pledge is as good as nothing at all. Only through a legal framework will we stop this. Even legal frameworks of course can be corrupted by corporations, as we know well, but that’s the best mechanism we have. Appealing to the good will of corporations is a black hole that just serves their continued exploitation.

The sooner not only the left but everyone left of center realizing that corporations are not our friends, will never be our friends, and in fact cannot be our friends, the better off we will all be.

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