By Nicolas Beaumont, Senior Vice-President, Sustainable Development and Mobility, Michelin.
The 800 million vehicles on today’s roads worldwide are fitted with 1.2 billion tires manufactured from over 10 million tonnes of natural rubber. And vehicle numbers are likely to double over the next quarter century. The transport sector is the main consumer of rubber – three-quarters of global production – with the remainder destined primarily for the health sector. To ensure rubber is produced in a sustainable manner to help contribute to tomorrow’s sustainable mobility, it is vital for tire manufacturers to join forces.
An industry-wide approach to production is possible as natural rubber lends itself particularly well to responsible and sustainable cultivation. As a fully renewable natural resource, rubber fits perfectly into a circular economic model. Rubber trees are also beneficial in terms of carbon storage, fixing twenty times more CO2 than most other plantation crops. And at the end of its rubber-producing lifetime (of around 30 years), a rubber tree can have a second life cycle as biomass or in furniture production. Rubber growing is highly labour-intensive; it is estimated that the livelihood of some 6 000 households depend directly on it, with 20 million indirect jobs also supported. Plantation workers earn an income all year round – except for a one-month wintering period – as the trees are tapped to collect latex every day. Promoting social and responsible natural rubber practices is therefore also a means to foster inclusive growth.
In the move towards more sustainable practices, manufacturers have taken responsibility by engaging concrete measures. Some market players have made voluntary public commitments to adopt a responsible natural rubber policy. These include Michelin (2016), Pirelli (2017) and more recently Bridgestone (2018) and Goodyear (2018). The natural rubber producers undertake to fight deforestation, improve the living and working conditions of farmers and encourage best farming practices. Some carry out social and environmental audits of the main rubber suppliers or send agronomists to advise rubber growers on better farming practices.
Increasing yield is a lever which can be harnessed to prevent more land being lost and to mitigate the risk of deforestation, as well as boosting income for rubber growers. Some rubber plantations in Côte d’Ivoire boast a yield per hectare of over 2.2 tonnes per year. Yet in Indonesia, the world’s second rubber producer, yields stand at half this figure. A number of factors can explain this disparity: soil preparation, choice of tree variety, density of plantations, quality of tapping operations, organisation of harvesting and rubber production. Fostering best farming practices is one of the keys to upping yield per hectare. It would make a doubling of rubber production possible in a country like Indonesia without increasing the amount of cultivated land necessary and associated negative impacts on the environment.
Since 2015, Michelin has been deploying an innovative tool called Rubberway. It is designed to map supply chain risks and identify best practices in the various regions concerned: Thailand, Indonesia, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana and Brazil. Of the millions of farmers dependent on rubber, 85% are smallholders. In fact, one single rubber processing factory can receive its rubber supply from as many as 10 000 different growers! The Rubberway tool consists of a questionnaire sent to direct suppliers and even smallholders by means of an app which makes it possible to reach further down the chain below Tier 1 suppliers and middlemen. The findings of these thousands of questionnaires will give an insight into farming conditions and practices in the plantations in various parts of the world and help us better tailor the farming assistance required.
The Tyre Industry Project (TIP) is an industry-led forum grouping the eleven tire manufacturers, which account for 65% of global tire production capacity. The launch of a global sustainable natural rubber platform was announced at the World Rubber Summit in Colombo, Sri Lanka, in April. Its purpose is to continuously improve the natural rubber value chain. A diverse group of stakeholders are actively participating in the development of this initiative, including NGOs like the WWF, BirdLife International, FSC, Global Witness, Mighty Earth or Rainforest International.
All these joint initiatives which benefit the agricultural sector are another step on the road to sustainable natural rubber. It is an ongoing challenge we are addressing – all together – with sustainable mobility for everyone on the horizon.
Michelin is a member of the ITF’s Corporate Partnership Board (CPB).