Can companies stop commodity-driven deforestation?

If yes, at what cost?

Research insights from the Environmental Policy Lab at ETH Zurich

Beef cattle, soy, palm oil, cocoa – all these products are forest-risk commodities that drive around two-thirds of all deforestation in the tropics and subtropics. In response, companies that source such products have made ‘zero-deforestation commitments’, promising to eliminate deforestation from their supply chains. How successful are such commitments in preventing commodity-driven deforestation? And how do they affect the livelihoods of farmers in producing regions? Our research team pursues these questions through comparative research spanning three continents, focusing on the key forest regions of Brazil, Indonesia, and West Africa.

The challenge

The production and trade of food commodities, including beef, cocoa, coffee, palm oil, and soybeans, and their associated land management and clearing practices (e.g., fire, peatland drainage) are the major drivers of forest loss and degradation in the tropics. Pendrill et al. estimated that ~60% of tropical forest loss can be attributed to expanding cropland, pastures and forest plantations for export. In the Brazilian Amazon, the expansion of pastures for beef cattle production is the primary cause of deforestation, accounting for 62% of all forests and woodlands cleared between 2001-2013. In the Brazilian Cerrado, deforestation is driven both by pasture and soybean expansion. Direct conversion for soy accounted for 16–32% of annual clearing in the Cerrado between 2003 and 2014. In Indonesia, oil palm plantations drove at least one quarter of all deforestation between 1995-2015, replacing over 2 million ha of primary forests. In West Africa, cocoa production is the primary commodity of concern, creating conversion pressure in forest reserves and protected areas. In 2018, the rate of tree cover loss in Ghana and Ivory Coast increased more than in any other region globally.

The tool

In recent years, the companies that handle or invest in forest-risk products have responded to civil society and consumer pressure to decouple their supply chains from deforestation and forest degradation by adopting a range of forest-focused supply chain policies. This includes global company and regional multi-stakeholder zero-deforestation commitments to not source from suppliers that deforested their land (e.g., Unilever’s Zero-Deforestation Policy and the Soy Moratorium in the Brazilian Amazon), as well as the development of approved supplier lists based on certifications that verify zero-deforestation and/or reforestation on properties (e.g., Rainforest Alliance certification).
These policies reflect a broader trend in increasing private sector governance of food systems and coincide with EU efforts to reduce the impacts of their international supply chains. The adoption of these voluntary policies by major global food and finance companies, many of which are based in Europe, represents an unprecedented opportunity to leverage consumer concern over deforestation to promote tropical forest conservation. These efforts are particularly promising given the limited institutional capacities and declining public protections of forests in key at-risk regions.

Our research

Our research combines four major innovations to overcome the methodological and geographical limitations of the existing literature on company supply chain policies: i) a coordinated pan-tropical data analysis of multiple forest risk commodities, ii) the simultaneous examination of conservation and livelihood outcomes, including newly accessible remotely sensed estimates of forest degradation, iii) assessing mechanisms of impact, not just measures of impact, and iv) a comparative study with triangulation across multiple scales and methods.

By conducting coordinated fieldwork across the world’s largest tropical hotspots of commodity-driven deforestation and urgent areas of reforestation we aim to generate comparative and generalizable insights on the conditions under which forest-focused supply chains might lead to both improved conservation and livelihood outcomes (e.g., effectiveness and equity). This will provide empirical evidence and theoretical knowledge on how to design effective and equitable private policies.


We study zero-deforestation commitments in cattle and soy in the Brazilian Amazon and Cerrado.


We study no deforestation, no peat, and no exploitation (NDPE) policies in the Indonesian oil palm sector.

West Africa

We study deforestation, reforestation, and agroforestry policies in Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire’s cocoa sectors.

Our team

This work is led by Professor Rachael Garrett (PI) and the members of her Environmental Policy Lab at ETH Zurich. We partner with a wide range of institutions and colleagues, including at EMBRAPA, IPB University, University of Queensland Australia, the University of Zürich, CGIAR/CIAT, UC Louvain, SEI, New York University, and UC Santa Barbara.


Feel free to reach out to our team for more information and to seek out collaboration opportunities!


ETH Zurich
Environmental Policy Group
Sonneggstr. 33, 8092 Zurich


Group manager:
Hannah Ringheim

We gratefully acknowledge that this research is generously funded in part by: the ERC Starting Grant ‘FORESTPOLICY’; the SNF Project Grant ‘Effectiveness and equity of ZDC implementation in the palm oil sector’; the Horizon 2020 ERA Joint COFUND Call on Biodiversity and Climate Change ‘SUSTAIN-COCOA’; the ETH World Food System Centre Fond Welternährungssystem through the project grant ‘Understanding stakeholder perceptions of the implementation of zero-deforestation commitments in Brazil and Indonesia’; and an ETH4D Faculty Exchange Grant. In the past, we benefitted from Meridian’s Supply Chain Sustainability Research Fund and support from the US National Science Foundation through the award #1739253 ‘Assessing the Influence of Zero-Deforestation Supply-Chain Commitments on the Conservation of Ecosystems’.