Banks, companies and academics have devised a tool to help achieve zero deforestation in their supply chains. Finbarr Bermingham reports on how the sustainable shipment letter of credit presents an opportunity for trade finance to change its ways.


March 31, 2014 should go down in history as the day on which the death knell sounded for climate change denialism. The second instalment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s Fifth Assessment Report opens with the unambiguous and disarming statement: “Human interference with the climate system is occurring, and climate change poses risks for human and natural systems,” before unleashing 30 chapters of damning evidence to back it up.

The past year has been described as a watershed in raising awareness of the extent at which climate catastrophe is ravaging the planet. Reports such as the IPCC’s have helped hammer the issue home – indeed the media coverage it received in the west was unprecedented. But for many of us, a look out the window would suffice. Britain just experienced its wettest winter in 250 years. Temperatures in parts of the Arctic have been 10°C higher than average. Heat waves and bushfires consumed swathes of Australia, while the polar vortex affected more than 200 million North Americans, with jets being forced to park up on the runways of O’Hare International Airport in Chicago, fuel frozen in their engines.

Perhaps the only silver to have lined the ominously dark clouds was the IPCC’s follow-up report a fortnight later, which concluded that reversing the trend would be very affordable. “It doesn’t cost the world to save the planet,” quipped economist Professor Ottmar Edenhofer, the IPCC project leader. Research found that diverting the capital intended for fossil fuel production towards renewable energy projects would only shave 0.06% from expected global GDP growth. The time for dawdling is gone. There can be no more excuses. Now is a time only for action.

In trade, a number of initiatives have been trumpeted loudly over the course of the year. The IFC’s Climate Smart Trade programme incentivises renewable energy trade, as well as the trade of energy-efficient goods. The EBRD followed the World Bank and US Exim in putting an end to the financing of coal-fired plants. But, reflecting the pattern in the wider world, the pace of change continues to proceed at a glacial pace.

A new opportunity
Banks are keen to impress the fact that they’re service providers and that their actions are always a reflection of their clients’ demands. It’s a line that often sounds convenient and shorn of responsibility but one which could take on new significance in the soft commodities space, in light of recent developments. It is early days, but, the work being done by the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL), the Consumer Goods Forum (CGF) and the Banking Environment Initiative (BEI) has the potential to drive important change in the way in which trade finance influences the planet.

The CGF brings together the CEOs of more than 400 retailers, manufacturers and service providers across 70 countries. Its member companies have combined sales of more than US$3tn and employ almost 10 million people. In November 2010, it passed a resolution that pledged to mobilise resources within its member businesses to achieve zero net deforestation in their supply chains by 2020.
“For consumer goods companies, the greatest impact we have most directly on climate change and greenhouse gas emissions is through our raw material sourcing,” Gail Klintworth, chief sustainability officer at Unilever explains to GTR. “We have our own operations, but they tend to be relatively small compared to energy companies, for example. We have our downstream impact, people using our product, but the upstream – the sourcing of paper, pulp, beef, soya, palm oil – this is our greatest impact on deforestation, which accounts for more than 15% of greenhouse gas emissions.”

Unilever – which purchases about 3% of the world’s palm oil for use in products such as margarine, ice cream, soap and shampoo – has independently imposed more stringent targets on itself. By the end of 2012, it was sourcing 100% of its palm oil from certified sustainable sources. In July 2013, it invested US$100mn in a palm oil fractionation plant in Indonesia. Part of the project was “ensuring that the guys delivering the palm to our plant need to put in place systems to make sure it’s traceable. We can trace the origins, and secure a steady supply of palm oil that’s not coming from deforested areas”.

Bankrolling it
This is where the banks come in. Traceable palm oil will come with a stamp, saying it was produced causing zero deforestation. “That’s why a tripartite agreement would be very useful,” says Klintworth. The CGF started dialogue with the BEI – a group of 10 banks which was simultaneously looking for ways in which to direct capital towards environmentally-responsible activities – and researchers at the CISL in 2011 to see where the banking sector could help rollout sustainability standards and provide finance through cogs on the commodity supply chains.

“They set out to ask the question of how the banking sector can align its services with the requirement on the consumer goods side,” Andrew Voysey, director, finance sector platforms at the CISL tells GTR. “Within that context, a very specific focus on documentary trade finance emerged. We discovered that operationally, it’s very straightforward for a bank handling a letter of credit (LC)
for palm oil to differentiate between one that has come from a sustainable source and one that hasn’t. We found that banks had already produced sustainable LCs in the area without knowing it.”

The parties eventually arrived at the Soft Commodities Compact, which will see the two groups “investigate what it would mean to align the banking industry’s services with the CGF’s 2010 resolution to mobilise resources within their respective businesses to help achieve zero net deforestation by 2020”.

Perhaps a more concrete conclusion to discussions was the development of a product called the sustainable shipment letter of credit (SSLC): a mechanism which is to be piloted with palm oil, and eventually rolled-out across soya, beef and paper and pulp (although no timescales have been set).

In 2007, a report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) found that if Indonesia kept producing palm oil at the rate it was and in the way it was, it would destroy 98% of its forests by 2022. Deforestation for palm oil plantations is a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. It has destroyed much of the habitat of endangered creatures such as the Sumatran tiger, the Asian rhino and the Sumatran orang-utan. Lax enforcement of environmental standards has led to widespread water pollution, while the plantations have also led to the displacement of indigenous communities. Palm oil, in environmental, social and reputational terms, is one of the most toxic commodities on the planet. In short, it seems like a good place to start.

Much of the trade in countries at risk from deforestation is still carried out on a documentary basis, meaning there is widespread use and understanding of the LC. In this case, the issuing bank would issue an SSLC at the request of a buyer and on the proviso that the supplier meets pre-existing standards set by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), which are designed to ensure the product isn’t made to the detriment of any forests, people or communities. Meeting these standards, would ensure the LC comes bearing its Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO) stamp.

The documentary process, as Voysey says, is relatively straightforward, but the rolling out may prove more challenging. “The first step is asking whether this is something the trade finance world can participate in, and that’s been answered with a tick. It’s possible with a mechanism which would allow banks to respond to buyer demand for a sustainably-certified LC for palm oil. The next step is the supply chain transformation the CGF is trying to lead, which is complex. Two things stand out in defining that complexity: that buyers are increasingly looking for traceability, and the cost involved in transitioning to this new way of operating. There are costs and ultimately it comes down to the fact that producers working to more sustainable modes of production expect to earn a premium. The general acceptance is that there should be a premium.”

Where’s the catch?
The IFC has been involved in the working group for the SSLC and the expectation is that in the early stages, it would offer a preferential rate of coverage for banks confirming SSLCs (much in the same model as its own Climate Smart Trade programme). However, most people involved agree that this is unsustainable. “You could look at that as a form of subsidy and that won’t go on forever,” says Jeremy Wilson, Barclays’ vice-chairman and chair of the BEI’s working group. “But momentum is building steadily across the commercial spectrum about the need to make sure your product is what it says it is and is safe in the sense that consumers won’t be poisoned, but also that it isn’t damaging the environment in which we live.”

Therein lies the future of the SSLC – and indeed any sustainability practice. As momentum builds, the commercial imperative becomes stronger. People won’t buy products if they don’t satisfy environmental concerns. For banks, the pressure will also grow stronger. Unless they can match the principles of their clients, they will lose the business. Those behind the SSLC should be aiming to make it an industry-wide standard, not just a niche offering.

“None of this is philanthropy,” says Klintworth at Unilever. “We want to do good for our business. The costs to our business in terms of extreme weather, the volatility of raw materials, and the future impact on growth are great. Over the past few years the impact of deforestation has cost us more than US$300mn, whether that’s through the disruption of distribution systems or floods. In addition, things like the availability of water for people to use our products may not be there in the future.”

Klintworth argues the case more forcefully than most, but everyone agrees that the commercial imperative of sustainability must be its major driver. This includes the rollout of the SSLC. If it can be proven that the SSLC is commercially attractive, that banks and companies will secure more business through acting sustainably, then the potential is there to embed similar products in supply chains.

Josh Levin is a senior programme officer in finance and commodities at the charity WWF. He was involved in the development of the SSLC and believes it has significant mileage. “It has a lot of potential, especially for transactions that occur at high-speed, like trade finance. This is not project finance, there aren’t months of due diligence. But the potential is not realised by just creating it. Information is only as powerful as what you do with it. If banks start to require RSPO in their trade finance portfolio, it will be realised, and now they have a tool for doing that.”

Levin published a report in 2012 entitled Profitability and Sustainability in Palm Oil Production, which found that global average palm oil yields are 3.4 metric tonnes per hectare, compared to the RSPO-accredited plantation average of 5 metric tonnes per hectare. His research shows that RSPO certification has a very positive impact on the bottom line.

The other side of the coin
But not everybody is sharing in the excitement. For a start, the RSPO has many critics. The International Union of Food Workers has slammed the RSPO for being “a hollow front for corporate greed and brutality”. Greenpeace has accused the RSPO of complicity in the forest fires that ripped through Sumatra last year, saying: “The palm oil industry’s so-called sustainability organisation, the RSPO has its head in the sand. There is no indication that the RSPO is conducting a comprehensive review of its members’ operations to assess whether RSPO members are implicated in the illegal use of fire or are otherwise negligent. Instead, the RSPO chose to pursue a selective review of just five of the many companies that were reported in the news around the time of the fires.”

Lobby group Bank Track reported in 2013 that French banks Société Générale and Crédit Agricole financed palm oil giant Sime Darby’s plantation in Liberia. Sime Darby is, according to Bank Track, “wallowing up farmlands and forests used by local communities to sustain their livelihoods”. It claims the contract signed to secure the land with the Liberian government contravened “several human rights principles in conventions ratified by the Liberian government as well as principles enshrined in Liberian law”. The communities filed a complaint with the RSPO, of which Sime Darby is a founder member. But because the organisation is voluntary and none of its recommendations binding, nothing was done (it should be noted that neither bank is a member of the BEI).
Levin admits that RSPO isn’t flawless, but is of the view that it’s better than no model at all. “Although the current criteria aren’t perfect, the RSPO is a vast improvement over business as usual,” he says. Surely, though, if the tool is to be progressed, it must be taken more seriously by the very stakeholders that helped devised it.

When GTR contacted Greenpeace to get a view on the SSLC, the charity welcomed the sentiment, but said that for the banking sector in particular, the focus should be on restricting other damaging areas of their business, rather than embarking on new ventures.
Richard George, UK forest campaigner, says: “On paper an initiative that increases the ease with which commodities producers can get access to credit if they do the right thing may be a good thing, but we’d much rather banks spent their time reviewing their balance sheets, reviewing who they’re lending to. We don’t see the problem being getting more money for good things, like sustainable commodities. The problem for us is that there’s far too much money for bad things.”

George commends the efforts of companies such as Unilever, which he says “have responsibility to demand commodities that are produced in a way that meets the values of the people that buy their products”, but views the gesture as being hollow if the banking sector is not willing to insist on such products being used everywhere in the world, on all transactions. He balks at the idea that banks should only be client-led and calls for banks to take the initiative on sustainability issues. He says: “We have global banks that are all over the high streets and bankrolling really controversial projects in Indonesia. In a way that makes them closer to a consumer company: they have a public face and a brand that’s vulnerable. The bottom line is not all that matters anymore. There’s been enough evidence of what’s happening on the ground in countries that have extended their commodity production for people to say: ‘that’s where the money was so we went there’.”

In some ways, the banks can’t win: they’re damned if they do, damned if they don’t. The fact that they’re investigating ways in which to affect zero deforestation in consumer goods’ supply chains is undeniably positive. However, it is not difficult to understand the scepticism: since 2008, BEI members SMBC and Westpac have funded 54 Australian coal and gas projects between them. A 2013 report from the World Development Movement found that the top five UK banks (HSBC, Barclays, Standard Chartered, RBS and Lloyds – of which Barclays and Lloyds are BEI members) have lent more money for Indonesian coal projects than any other country since 2009 (Barclays rejected the chance to respond to comments on other areas of their business).

The efforts of the BEI, the CGF and the CISL should be commended, but the congratulations should stop there: the hard work commences now. Every time a bank makes an announcement around climate change or sustainability, it is greeted with cynicism. This is the perfect chance for trade financiers to prove the cynics wrong. They may not have many chances left.