As U.K. eyes new environmental rules, some firms want to pump the brakes

  • A long-anticipated U.K. environmental bill is currently in the House of Lords and is expected to pass before the global climate summit takes place in Scotland later this year.
  • Environmental advocates have criticized the bill for failing to include human rights protections and allowing forms of deforestation deemed legal under local laws.
  • In a consultation held by a U.K. government agency, some representatives of the meat and oilseed industries pushed back against the threat of fines for importing products or commodities linked to illegal deforestation.

After months of delays, the U.K. is on the cusp of passing a long-awaited post-Brexit environmental bill. But according to documents obtained by U.K.-based advocacy group Earthsight, some of the country’s biggest food importers aren’t happy about some of its stricter provisions. If the bill passes in its current state, it would establish a new government body, the Office for Environmental Protection, that could levy fines against large companies found to have trafficked in commodities tied to illegal deforestation.

Behind the scenes, some lobbyists for companies that sell palm oil, soy and cattle products are telling the U.K. government they’re not enamored with that part of the bill.

“What they are really saying is that their profits are more important than the forests and forest-dependent communities suffering at their hands,” Sam Lawson, director of Earthsight, told Mongabay in an email. “Not only do they not admit this, but they also let their trade associations do the dirty work for them.”

The bill is the U.K.’s attempt to write its own environmental regulations after its long divorce from the European Union, which is also in the process of updating its own laws.

Critics of the proposed U.K. law have said it doesn’t go far enough, failing to include strong human rights provisions for rural communities and shrugging at tropical deforestation as long as it is technically permitted under the laws of the country where it takes place. Advocates have also pointed out that the bill won’t cover banks and other financial institutions, despite the role that capital investment often plays in enabling deforestation.

Still, it would require any large company that imports products and commodities to verify that their supply chains aren’t contributing to illegal deforestation. If they fail to adhere to the new rules, they could be hit with financial penalties.

Through a freedom of information request, Earthsight obtained records of a consultation that the U.K.’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) held with representatives of some companies that would be covered by the proposed law. According to the documents, some trade associations expressed skepticism of the more stringent rules their members would be subjected to if it passes.

According to Earthsight, the International Meat Trade Association (IMTA), which represents the Brazilian meatpacking giant JBS and U.S.-based Tyson Foods, among others, asked DEFRA whether it had considered an “incentives-based approach rather than one focussing on fines?” And the Seed Crushers and Oil Processors Association (SCOPA) said it was “not comfortable with the threat of fines levied against companies contravening this law.”

In recent years, JBS has been linked to illegal deforestation in Brazil, as have companies like Cargill, which is a member of SCOPA. Advocates say it’s not enough to ask politely that those companies do a better job of eliminating illegal forest products from their supply chains, and that fines are critical if the law is to make a dent in the global environmental crisis.

“There need to be strong enforcement mechanisms and sanctions for non-compliance to ensure there are real consequences, both legal and financial, for companies and financial institutions that continue to fuel global deforestation and associated human rights abuses,” Jo Blackman, head of forests policy and advocacy at Global Witness, told Mongabay in an email.

Not all of the companies involved in the DEFRA consultation expressed opposition to strong enforcement of the new law. Earthsight says the documents it obtained show that Nestlé, Unilever and the British Retail Consortium (BRC) criticized the law for not going far enough, echoing calls by environmental advocates that it be modified to include all forms of deforestation, rather than relying on local definitions of illegality that may have been crafted to be as industry-friendly as possible.

Angela Bowden from SCOPA told Mongabay that the association’s members are already conducting due diligence on their operations, and that they were concerned that an overly heavy-handed enforcement approach could force them to disengage entirely with risky parts of their supply chains that are hard to monitor.

“What we wanted to emphasize in our comments on the proposed due diligence legislation is that it must be enforceable and as such must recognize the complexities of commodity supply chains and encourage partnership with producer countries to achieve sustainable transformation of supply chains,” she said in an email.

Bowden added that SCOPA’s comments during the DEFRA consultation did not reflect a hard-line opposition to fines or other penalties for non-compliance: “We have no objection to penalties per se, provided they are fairly applied and commensurate to the principle of due diligence, which can be complicated in complex supply chains.”

But Lawson said the argument that commodity supply chains are too complicated to effectively monitor is a smokescreen for the real concern producers and traders have: the costs associated with cleaning them up.

“It might be difficult, but it is more than possible,” he said. “If tiny organizations like ours can trace these firms’ supply chains independently, without the access to information these firms have, then the idea that these giant firms cannot also do so is nonsensical. What these companies really mean when they say this is that it would be expensive.”

As the bill moves through the U.K. parliament, the question of whether corporate due diligence is adequate in preventing deforestation could shape what the final version looks like. According to Blackman of Global Witness, recent history speaks for itself.

“It is widely recognized that certification and voluntary measures have failed to stop UK companies from driving global deforestation, which is why the government has brought forward legislation,” she said. “Ultimately, companies that clean up their supply chains and keep their promises on deforestation will benefit from a strong enforcement approach that holds those failing to act to account.”

Banner image: courtesy of Sue Branford.