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Our imports should support sustainable development, not environmental destruction

 

Today we are publishing Risky Business, a new report that examines the UK’s imports of seven everyday commodities: beef and leather, cocoa, palm oil, pulp and paper, rubber, soy, and timber. The report sets out how much of these commodities we imported into the UK every year between 2011 and 2015, and the size of the overseas land footprint that created.

13.6 million hectares

The UK’s footprint each year is 13.6 million hectares on average, from these seven commodities alone. That’s an area more than half the size of the UK itself.

The footprint lies in some of the most biodiverse areas of the world: Brazil, China, Indonesia and Malaysia. It also lies in the areas that have seen the greatest loss of forests: the Amazon basin, south-east Asia and tropical regions of Africa.

If the government is to meet its pledge for us to be ‘the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than we inherited’, this huge international impact is something that has to be taken into account.

Size matters

The size of the footprint is important. It doesn’t necessarily mean that UK imports have directly caused damage to nature or people’s lives. It could potentially be a footprint across which new jobs have been created, and taxes raised to fund schools and hospitals. UK trade can help promote sustainable development – if it’s done responsibly.

But the commodities we looked at have in some places been linked to deforestation, forced labour, and communities being forced off their land. Where the UK is consuming the production from huge areas of land, there is a risk that we are contributing to the pressure on nature and people. It’s that risk that we want to highlight, and encourage further action to address it.

Rubber tapping, Long Pahangai, BorneoRubber tapping, Indonesia. Rubber trees contribute to local livelihoods and have less environmental impact than palm oil.

Time to act

We should be proud of the role UK government and companies have played in raising the issue of deforestation. The New York Declaration on Forests (2014) and Amsterdam Declaration Towards Sustainable Supply Chains (2015) have demonstrated the willingness of UK actors to work with others to address the problem at global level. However, we need more action and more transparency if we are to meet the commitments. In Risky Business we call for urgent action to build on good progress, and push for more.

As the UK reshapes its role with the rest of the world, we need to reflect on the role our trade relationships will play. The UK can maintain its status as a global leader, matching words with actions, and working with producers around the world to support the shift to sustainable practices. It isn’t easy, but the potential rewards are great: decreasing the loss of habitats and species, healthier and wealthier populations, and limiting climate change. The alternatives – to withdraw UK trade from areas with deforestation or social challenges, or ignore our potential impacts – present unacceptable risk to us all.

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