Faced with a global demand for natural rubber that is rapidly outstripping supply, tire industry stakeholders are pushing to improve sustainable rubber yields, harmonize standards, protect human rights and natural resources — all while improving transparency and traceability in a complex supply chain.
From January through September of this year, global demand for natural rubber outstripped supply by 874,000 metric tons, the European Rubber Journal reported, citing statistics from the Association of Natural Rubber Producing Countries. The transport sector consumes three-quarters of global rubber production, Michelin’s senior vice president of sustainable development and mobility Nicolas Beaumont pointed out recently.
“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,” he wrote. “An industry-wide approach to production is possible as natural rubber lends itself particularly well to responsible and sustainable cultivation.”
Over the past several years, major tire manufacturers have publicly committed to responsible natural rubber policies. They include Michelin, Pirelli, Goodyear, and Bridgestone, which are also members of the Tire Industry Project, a global forum for the tire industry on sustainability issues. Altogether, the 11 TIP members account for around 65% of global tire manufacturing capacity.
In late October, the Tire Industry Project launched the Global Platform for Sustainable Natural Rubber (GPSNR). This independent platform aims to lead improvements in the socio-economic and environmental performance of the natural rubber value chain. Operations will begin in March 2019 headquartered in Singapore.
Spurred in part by automakers like General Motors, other tire industry sustainable rubber initiatives include:
- Michelin evaluates CSR practices in the company’s rubber supply chain. They use the EcoVadis platform to look at direct suppliers, and use a mobile application called Rubberway to check practices of stakeholders in their upstream supply chain.
- Bridgestone and Pirelli are among the tire companies researching the desert plant guayule due to its ability to thrive with less water than rubber-producing hevea trees. “You can get a natural rubber equivalent out of this cactus that would grow in the desert with very little water,” Maureen Kline, vice president of public affairs and sustainability for Pirelli Tire North America, told Environmental Leader last year.
- Tire manufacturers have been working with the WWF on pilot projects in countries where unsustainable and illegal rubber plantations have caused deforestation. “In Myanmar, WWF is tracking supply chains, developing sustainable rubber production strategies with the Ministry of Agriculture, Karen National Union, and the Myanmar Rubber Planters and Producers Association, and is educating farmers about best management practices,” the nonprofit says.
“As a fully renewable natural resource, rubber fits perfectly into a circular economic model,” Michelin’s Beaumont says. “Rubber trees are also beneficial in terms of carbon storage, fixing 20 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.”