Michelin reinvents the wheel

Henry Waxman

When most of us buy tires for our cars, we don’t put a lot of thought into the purchase, much to the chagrin of environmentalists and human rights advocates who know that rubber cultivation is one of the biggest drivers of deforestation worldwide.

Fortunately, Michelin’s just-announced no-deforestation policy promises to ease the minds of conscientious consumers — if American companies are brave enough to follow suit.

With their unprecedented policy, Michelin Group, one of the world’s three largest tire companies, has boldly forged a new path for the rubber industry. For the first time, a major tire manufacturer has embraced a zero deforestation policy for all natural rubber purchases. Moreover, the company made a strong commitment to human rights and social protections, especially for indigenous people living where rubber is farmed.

But how will American tire and car companies respond? They can follow in the wake of the French tire giant and make good on their many pronouncements about sustainability, or get left behind while Michelin and other European companies lead the charge and reap the benefits. Will Goodyear, Tesla, General Motors, Ford and Chrysler make us proud?

Much hangs in the balance. When we buy tires that are unsustainably sourced, we’re paying for the materials inside our wheels, and the dirty practices that led up to our purchase: namely deforestation and human rights abuses. Large-scale industrial rubber plantations are driving a globally significant surge in deforestation and scientists believe that projected global rubber demand could swallow up between 10.6 and 21 million acres of land by 2024 (nearly the size of Indiana). Rubber plantations are biological deserts in comparison with the natural forests they raze and replace — many of which are hotspots for biodiversity and home to species like endangered orangutans, macaques and gibbons. As a result, we’re standing by as forests are decimated, vital ecosystems threatened, and wildlife pushed closer to critically-endangered status.

Alongside environmental threats, rubber-driven deforestation in places like Burma and Cambodia can hurt people too, in large part because it triggers land-grabbing. Human rights violations linked to land grabs and evictions hit the impoverished and vulnerable hardest, particularly indigenous groups who have lived in forests for generations. Activists who stand up for their land rights can face abuses like arbitrary arrests and police brutality.

Despite the numerous threats that rubber poses to forests, the people who dwell there, biodiversity, and the fight against climate change, the rubber industry has not attracted conservation efforts on a scale even close to those devoted to the palm oil industry.

With Michelin’s announcement this past weekend, all this may change. The tire-making industry accounts for about 60 percent of global rubber consumption, and the top five tire companies—Bridgestone/Firestone, Goodyear, Michelin, Pirelli and Continental — account for 35 percent of all consumption. If the big five and the car companies that buy their tires adopt meaningful human rights and environmental protection measures, we will see tremendous positive change for the planet’s tropical forests and the people who dwell in them.

I am eager to see the American tire and car industries get on the right side of history where rubber is concerned. But there is much more to be done if we are to protect the world’s endangered forests.

Next time you replace your tires, remember that you too have an opportunity to support sustainable development instead of deforestation.

Henry Waxman is chairman of Waxman Strategies.