Europe’s Law Will Protect Forests. Can It Help You Do the Same?

The European Union recently passed the Deforestation Regulation, a groundbreaking law that requires companies to prove their products are not linked to deforestation in order to import them into the EU. What products are covered? And can the regulations help you choose products that don’t harm forests too, even if you live outside of Europe?

Deforestation is a major environmental issue. It leads to loss of biodiversity and increasing emissions while reducing nature’s ability to capture carbon dioxide, which accelerates climate change. The clearing of land for agricultural use has been happening since the stone age but has accelerated dramatically over the last century. The World Wildlife Organization estimates that up to “30 soccer fields’ worth of trees” are cut down in the tropics each minute.

Forests are home to countless species and act as the world’s lungs, absorbing carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen. Their destruction disrupts ecosystems, contributes to global warming, and threatens our planet’s health.

Amazon rainforest deforestation

The EU’s Bold Move

Recognizing the urgency of the situation, the EU acted. The EU Deforestation Regulation (known as the EUDR), requires companies to demonstrate that their products are not linked to deforestation. It should simplify environmentally responsible choices for consumers who are burdened with having to do their own research on sustainably sourced products. Companies that hide their ties to deforestation face the risk of substantial fines, as well as bans on their products, should they fail to meet the EUDR’s requirements.

The regulation applies to goods that contain rubber, soy, palm oil, coffee, cocoa, timber (wood), and cattle – all of which are major contributors to deforestation.

EU Deforestation Regulation infographic
LiveEO, which provides deforestation detection services, breaks down the complex legislation elements of the EU Deforestation Regulation.

Many products have a significant impact on our forests. For example, palm oil plantations are often established in tropical rainforests, replacing natural vegetation with acres of a single type of plant. Cattle ranching is a major driver of deforestation in the Amazon. Rubber plantations often replace natural forests, leading to habitat loss and soil degradation. In addition, because soy is mostly used for animal feed, large-scale soya farming often involves clearing of forests to favor higher outputs, particularly in South America.

Coffee cultivation is another driver of deforestation when shade-grown coffee is replaced with varieties that tolerate full sun and require clearing of trees. The high demand for chocolate has made cocoa farming a significant cause of deforestation in West Africa. And illegal logging and unsustainable forestry practices for timber and paper production also lead to significant deforestation worldwide.

Aerial view of huge coffee plantation in Brazil
Coffee plantation in Minas Gerais, Brazil

Business, Supplier, and Trade Impacts

Interestingly, because in-person monitoring can be unrealistic (especially for small to medium sized enterprises), the bill encourages the use of satellite imagery to prove deforestation-free status. This is a new approach enabled by the accessibility and extensive availability of satellite data, as hundreds of satellites observe the globe daily.

Businesses selling the regulated goods must provide GPS coordinates of their source locations, and can prove compliance by combining these with dated aerial photographs. While not all businesses may use satellite data, the burden of proof lies with the companies. Every product manufacturer doing business in the EU must manage their own deforestation due diligence system to document their sustainable procedures and assess risk, as well as carry out independent investigations to mitigate these potential risks. These due diligence systems are mandatory and must be submitted to the EU before placing products on the market. And all suppliers to EU importers dealing with the commodities are subject to random checks.

The regulation also faces significant hurdles. Potentially higher prices due to weakening of supply chains could produce economic and political pressure. Deforestation-linked products may simply move to new markets. Around the world, training small farmers to comply will be costly and time-consuming. Relations between the EU and other governments dependent on small farmers’ tax revenues may become strained.

In particular, worries about the effect of the regulation on small farmers have been growing globally, especially in Asia, where economies in countries like Vietnam, from which Europe gets most of its coffee, depend greatly on the agriculture sector. The same is true in Malaysia, which boasts an enormous palm oil industry. The feasibility of smaller producers proving their compliance is one of the most worrisome implications of the EUDR. Larger traders can be forced to comply, but these smallholders will be the ones to have to enact change in their operations for their products to be purchasable by the larger firms.

Implications and Potential Effects of the Bill

The EUDR is a milestone for consumers, finally giving them a sliver of hope that they can trust regulatory bodies to implement real strategies and solutions that will lead to tangible environmental change. After all, it shouldn’t be the consumer’s job to make sure their purchases aren’t driving a massive environmental disaster.

However, the regulation only applies to products on the EU market, which means it will not be possible to identify products meeting the EUDR in other countries. If found non-compliant in the EU, companies are likely to choose to sell their product on other unregulated markets.

The effects of this issue will be visible once compliance is mandatory for large enterprises in late 2024.

What if I Live Outside the EU?

Although Europeans will eventually be able to make guilt-free purchases once the law comes into effect, products in other countries may still come from companies with environmentally unethical practices. How do you avoid environment-damaging products at the grocery store?

The short answer, for now, is that there is no way to recognize EUDR-compliant products outside the EU. A database of EUDR-compliant products, for instance, could be quite useful, but no plans for one have been announced so far.

In the meantime, it’s important to remember that deforestation is a global issue that you can spot when shopping. Next time you’re shopping for coffee beans, or steak for a Sunday barbeque, look for certifications like the Rainforest Alliance or Fairtrade, which help ensure products are sustainably sourced.

Fairtrade and Rainforest Alliance logos
Look for Fairtrade and Rainforest Alliance labels on products like coffee or steak to help ensure the products are sustainably sourced.

Even with the lack of clarity about identifying sustainable products, the European Union is setting a great example. Beyond political differences, the reason it took so long to implement the EUDR is simply because the regulation is a massive task. It will undoubtedly have major effects on supply chains that stakeholders would rather not jeopardize – they knew how to make money in the old system. Oftentimes, however, change is only catalyzed by disruption. Once the EU’s transparent system evolves and flows, other countries will be able to follow suit.

You Can Help Influence Local Legislation

The EU’s move demonstrates that action is not only politically possible but necessary. The United States, for example, had attempted to introduce the very similar Forest Act in 2021, which never reached a vote in Congress. But with the EUDR’s enactment, it’s likely that U.S. legislation will have a greater chance of being adopted simply to make American products more competitive.

You can also help bring this kind of legislation to life where you live by influencing your local representatives. If you live in the U.S., for example, you can contact your elected officials and encourage them to support the Forest Act, which will soon be reintroduced to the senate. You could start with a message such as the following.

Dear <Representative>,

The EU recently introduced anti-deforestation laws that will have an enormous impact by preventing supply chains from relying on materials sourced from sites that have been deforested, such as soy, cocoa, and palm oil. I am writing to ask you to follow the EU’s lead, and consider sponsoring or supporting the Forest Act. It is our duty as a nation to uphold the highest standards of sustainability, and the Forest Act will move us a significant step closer to setting an example. Without it, we risk not just the safety of the world’s forests, but letting the United States become a dumping ground for goods not qualified for the European Union’s new standards.

Sincerely,

Caring Citizen

A Milestone for Global Forest Protection

The EU’s regulation is a milestone in the fight against deforestation. It sets an environmental and regulatory precedent for other countries and has the potential to transform industries. The question now is, will other countries follow suit?

Deforestation is a massive problem, but the EU’s new regulation shows that it’s a problem we can tackle. As consumers, we can choose to protect our environment, and every small action counts. Whether you ask your grocer to stock sustainably sourced products or campaign to end unsustainable practices in your community, let’s follow the EU’s lead and do our part to protect our planet’s forests.

About the Author

Gabriel Surges is a musician and marketing intern at LiveEO, a satellite data analytics company that aims to protect and benefit life on Earth. Gabriel lives in Berlin, where he assists LiveEO in copywriting, audio & content production, and social media management focusing on sustainability.