Biodiversity threats traced through their supply chains

7 June 2012

The study showed how the production of consumer goods affected biodiversity around the world.
The study showed how the production of consumer goods affected biodiversity around the world.

Thirty percent of threatened species are at risk because of consumption in the developed world according to University of Sydney research. The study mapped the world economy to trace the global trade of goods implicated in biodiversity loss such as coffee, cocoa, and lumber.

"Our findings can be used to improve the regulation and product labelling of thousands of internationally traded products," said Professor Manfred Lenzen, lead author of the research published in Nature today.

Professor Lenzen is from the Integrated Sustainability Analysis group at the University's School of Physics.

The study evaluated over five billion supply chains connecting consumers to over 15,000 commodities produced in 187 countries. This was cross-referenced with a global register of 25,000 endangered and vulnerable species.

"Until now these relationships have only been poorly understood. Our extraordinary number crunching, which took years of data collection and thousands of hours on a supercomputer to process, lets us see these global supply chains in amazing detail for the first time," Professor Lenzen said.

There is increasing awareness that developed countries' consumption of imported products can cause a biodiversity footprint that is larger abroad than at home. The study shows how this is the case for many countries, including the US, Japan, and numerous European states.

Among exporting countries, where the species losses actually occur, on average 35 percent of recorded threats can be linked to export-led production. In Madagascar, Papua New Guinea, Sri Lanka and Honduras, this figure is 50 to 60 percent.

Papua New Guinea, for example, has 171 listed species threatened by export industries including mining, timber, coffee, and cocoa, to a few large trading partners, including Australia.

Agricultural exports from Indonesia, another Australian trading partner, affect 294 species, including tigers.

Australia's trove of unique species means that despite its high consumption, it is a net exporter of implicated goods including mining and agricultural products whose production often drives habitat loss and pollution that threaten particular species.

The researchers say the findings can be used to better protect biodiversity. On the consumer side, they hope sustainability labels become be the norm, not the exception, helped by the information this study makes available.

"We shouldn't let retailers make sustainability labels a premium product. We should ask that they always stock products that are made responsibly, from the bottom shelf to the top shelf," said Barney Foran, a co-author of the study also from the School of Physics.

On the production side, they recommend companies be required to make foreign suppliers accountable to the same production standards they hold at home, as leading manufacturers do with their Asian manufacturers. The authors also say countries should harmonise environmental laws so producers don't simply relocate to the country with the least protections.

Biodiversity will be a major focus at the upcoming Rio+20 Earth Summit Conference later this month.

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