As fires devastate the Brazilian Amazon rainforest, much of the world has been outraged, arguing the loss will accelerate climate change. French President Emmanuel Macron harshly criticized Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro for encouraging deforestation. The Group of Seven nations offered $22.2 million to help fight the fires. Some activists want to try Bolsonaro at The Hague for ecocide.

Meanwhile, similarly vast forest fires in Indonesia and Malaysia receive far less attention. In both parts of the world, forest fires usually start as controlled burns set by farmers or plantation companies wanting to clear land for agriculture: soybeans, corn or cattle ranching in the Amazon, and palm oil in Southeast Asia. All of these products tend to be exported to overseas markets, such as the United States.

Environmental groups and other nongovernmental organizations have worked to name and shame the corporations that profit from the cleared land, encouraging consumer boycotts and shareholder pressure — hoping to force change without governments intervening. But such efforts can prompt “greenwashing” — certification schemes with loopholes intended to impress consumers about safe growing practices without levying real checks or consequences.

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Firms are turning to certification

Here’s how the consumer approach works. Importing firms and manufacturers are pressured by NGOs, customers and shareholders to boycott products from illicitly cleared land in places such as the Amazon and Indonesia. These firms then demand overseas suppliers prove their products don’t come from deforested land. Suppliers must demonstrate this by either developing or joining a forest certification standard developed typically through multi-stakeholder initiatives that involve NGOs and firms. Firms could then tell the NGOs and customers their overseas suppliers are not implicated in forest fires. Our research finds similar kinds of pressure have helped enforce environmental norms, labor rights, workplace safety and human rights.

A good example of how this works is the chocolate spread Nutella, manufactured by the Ferrero group, whose ingredients include palm oil. This became controversial with consumers, because palm oil cultivation in South Asia is contributing to deforestation. Joining the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, Ferrero began initiatives to convince consumers it knew where nearly all of its palm oil was coming from — and it was being produced sustainably.

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Similarly, the cosmetic industry buys large quantities of palm oil. Public outcry about the burning of Asian forest to establish palm oil plantations led some cosmetic companies to reformulate products to avoid palm oil entirely. Others have asked supplying plantations to subscribe to a variety of certification systems that claim to identify best practices for palm oil cultivation. As a result, overseas buyers can easily claim that they are using sustainable palm oil.

The story in the Amazon is similar. McDonald’s and other major beef importers have some leverage over the Brazilian ranching industry. Like palm oil buyers, they want to preserve their reputations by purchasing sustainable beef via such platforms as the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef. Interestingly, the Chinese meat industry, an important importer of Brazilian beef, is partnering with the World Wildlife Fund to protect the Amazon forests.

But certification isn’t stopping forest fires

Despite these efforts, fires continue in South Asia. This suggests palm oil sustainability standards are not really changing behavior. That could be because they are not being widely adopted. Or they might be greenwashes — bad-faith attempts to look environmentally sound without changing anything — with lax requirements. In response, governments may intervene, refusing to accept the results. For instance, the European Union has decided that because of the environmental destruction involved, palm oil cannot be labeled a biofuel. In response, the palm oil industry may be forced to tighten its standards and improve its own policing.

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The story is similar in the Amazon, where the cattle industry accounts for about 80 percent of forest clearing. Since 2009, Brazil’s biggest meatpacking companies, JBS, Minerva and Marfrig, have worked with Greenpeace not to buy cattle from ranchers who raised the animals in newly deforested areas. The problem is that although cows are bought and sold repeatedly before they reach slaughterhouses, the meat packaging companies monitor only the ranch from which the cattle was purchased — not the full cattle supply chain. Ranchers are exploiting this loophole. They continue to raise cattle by clearing forests — but then sell them to ranches that comply with the agreement. Some organizations and activists are calling for a large-scale buyer boycott of Brazilian beef. Beef buyers and ranchers may be pushed to update certification schemes.

But with boycotts and NGO pressure failing to deliver strong enough results, those who wish to halt such fires may turn to government action. Such methods could include offers of international aid and threats of sanctions; new technologies for monitoring hot spots, and paying farmers for eco-services.

Organized consumer action may keep trying to pressure overseas suppliers to adopt stricter forestry standards. If they fail to stop the destruction, palm oil and beef producers may soon face government action or even larger-scale consumer boycotts.

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Christianna Parr (@sirindahparr) is a PhD student in political science and the Richard B. Wesley fellow in environmental politics and governance at the University of Washington at Seattle.

Nives Dolsak (@NivesDolsak) is a professor and director at the School of Marine and Environmental Affairs at the University of Washington at Seattle.

Aseem Prakash is the Walker family professor and the director of the Center for Environmental Politics at the University of Washington at Seattle.

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