On 7 December, four governments, along with 11 private-sector organizations, pledged to support a 100% sustainable palm oil supply chain for the European Union by 2020. Demand for palm oil is one of the biggest drivers of deforestation today, and palm oil finds its way, in one form or another, into thousands of consumer products consumed in the EU, so this is a very welcome commitment. But like the 2014 New York Declaration on Forests – committing companies, countries and civil society organizations to collaborate on halving global deforestation by 2020 and eliminating it by 2030 – implementing it will demand innovative solutions and continent-spanning partnerships that are barely seen today.

The challenge

Internationally traded agricultural commodities – such as soy, oil palm and beef – are a multi-billion dollar segment of the global economy. They drive development in both producer and consumer countries. But their production, especially in producer countries throughout the tropics, is often linked to heavy social and environmental impacts. Over the last decade, for example, agricultural expansion has been responsible some two-thirds of tropical deforestation, accelerating climate change and sometimes threatening the rights and livelihoods of local people.

Eliminating these impacts will depend largely on close collaboration between civil society, producers and consumers – companies, governments an subnational authorities. But they can be half a world apart, linked only by complicated, sinuous and barely understood global supply chains.

Even the global frontrunners in supply chain sustainability action find it can be an uphill struggle to discover just where their oil palm (or soy bean, or coffee or sugar …) comes from, and which traders’ and shippers’ hands it passes through on the way. According to one corporate sustainability director engaged in a supply chain sustainability initiative that used SEI-PCS, an SEI-developed supply chain mapping methodology: “In discussions between us and our suppliers, transparency was always a problem. They would say it’s not easy to have transparency. Through the whole journey we had around deforestation we were fighting opacity of the value chain.”

Exploring the middle ground

Transformative Transparency, a new online platform being developed by the SEI Initiative on Producer to Consumer Sustainability (P2CS) with the Global Canopy Programme (GCP), aims to shed new light on the supply chains of some of the main internationally traded agricultural commodities that have been linked to deforestation and other sustainability issues.

Key unique strength of the platform, now in a limited beta version, is illuminating the middle section of supply chains often hidden from both growers and consumers – in particular, tracing commodity flows from the jurisdictions (municipalities, provinces or districts) where they were grown all the way to the consumer country. It identifies the jurisdictions of production, the traders and intermediaries along the way, as well as ports of exit and entry, for virtually a producer country’s entire exported crop in multiple years. The platform does this by analyzing previously underexploited data: on subnational production and logistics, as well as customs and trade data.

In the next phase of development, the platform will also link the supply chain mapping to specific information on deforestation, water scarcity and other sustainability-related issues in the producer municipalities, and integrate with complementary online data sets and initiatives such as the Forest 500.

“Our ultimate vision for the platform is to unlock the potential of supply chain transparency data to meet the needs of companies, governments, banks and other stakeholders who have made firm commitments to make the production, trade and consumption of major agricultural commodities,” said Javier Godar, author of SEI-PCS, the methodological innovation that underpins Transformative Transparency. “Achieving this requires integrating these data and results about how supply chains function, and their associated performance and risk into collaborative decision-support processes connected to real places, commodities and people. We are already starting this work with a focus on Indonesian oil palm and Brazilian soy.”

Godar and P2CS’s Toby Gardner, along with a team from GCP, were in Paris last week presenting the beta platform and the vision for the full platform in several forums, to gauge potential users’ responses. They presented the beta platform at a workshop on 30 November as part of the Forests and Livelihoods: Assessment, Research and Engagement (FLARE) conference organized by International Forest Resources and Institutions (IFRI). It was also presented on 2 December at the launch of the Forest 500, and on 4 December in an SEI-GCP-led workshop, “Navigating the world of supply chain transparency”, a gathering of representatives of some of the leading supply chain transparency initiatives currently on the market or under development.

“We know that Transformative Transparency is a unique and powerful information system. Part of our aim in Paris was to see if some of the groups we hope will use it – including governments, major traders and sustainable trade watchdogs and initiatives – shared our excitement. I can say that they did,” said Toby Gardner.

Next steps

The current beta platform showcases some of the capabilities being built in to Transformative Transparency. It is only accessible for a limited time to selected users. The aim is to launch the full, publicly accessible free platform at the end of 2016, subject to funding.

To learn more about Transformative Transparency, visit ttp.sei.org, or download a brief introducing the platform (PDF, 750 kb).