Google Inc. is using its prowess at big-data analytics to try to save the world’s rain forests.
The company, working with more than 40 partners including the World Resources Institute and the United Nations Environment Programme, created a mapping tool to help groups and corporations track deforestation almost as it happens. The software will be unveiled today at the Newseum in Washington.
“It’s going to change certainly the way that we do business and that we interrogate our supply chains and our suppliers,” said Duncan Pollard, Nestle SA’s head of stakeholder engagement in sustainability.
Tracking the source of products has become an important task for multinational companies like Nestle, Unilever NV and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. All have pledged to obtain their raw materials without contributing to deforestation.
The tool, called Global Forest Watch, uses Google’s technology and data from NASA satellites that’s incorporated with information on a nation’s logging and palm oil licenses. It can highlight areas of deforestation and forest fires, and can be updated every month.
“Google turbo-charges this entire system,” said Nigel Sizer, director of the World Resources Institute’s global forest initiative. “The Google Earth Engine and the Google cloud enable us, working with them, to analyze and interpret global data sets in hours that would have previously taken us years and years.”
Pollard said Nestle sought to produce its own mapping system last year and in comparison to the Google software it was very rudimentary.
For multinational companies, missteps in improper sourcing of raw materials have become a public relations liability. In 2010, Greenpeace took on Nestle for using palm oil from land in Indonesia that was a virgin rainforest and home to endangered orangutans.
A video circulated on YouTube and Vimeo drew 1.5 million views. It showed someone biting an orangutan’s finger instead of a Nestle Kit Kat candy bar. Facebook supporters were encouraged to change their profile pictures to images of orangutans and the campaign’s Kit Kat ‘killer’ logo. Protesters dressed as orangutans also delivered the message at the company’s annual general meeting that year.
The campaign made an impact. Nestle halted purchases, renegotiated a contract with its supplier then resumed buying the palm oil after adjustments were made.
Companies like Nestle, Unilever and Cargill Inc. have pledged to stop using palm oil from trees planted on land that had previously been virgin rainforest. Last month, Singapore-based Wilmar International Ltd., the world’s largest palm oil trader, said it will make sure plantations and suppliers protect forests and abstain from using fire to clear land. The company joined Unilever, which has said all of its supplies will be traceable to know sources by the end of 2014.
Sizer said the corporate pledges have influenced commodities trading. “It’s changed how these commodities are treated in the market. The commodity traders have to be able to say: ‘This is where it came from, this is how it was produced, these are the certification standards that it met.’”
Sizer says Global Forest Watch will help customers track their suppliers and monitor compliance with any agreements.
“You can see in real time whether the supplier is doing what they promised,” Sizer said. “The good guys can demonstrate that they’re in compliance and the bad guys are clear for everyone to see. There’s nowhere they can hide.”
Major funding for Global Forest Watch comes from the Norwegian Climate and Forests Initiative, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the U.K. Department for International Development and private environmental groups. Google said it donated its services.
Environmental activists are counting on Forest Watch to help them enforce company pledges.
“When there’s a lack of information or when a supply chain is opaque, then it’s really easy for companies just to throw their hands up and say: ‘We don’t know what’s going on and therefore how can you expect us to fix anything,’” said Rolf Skar, the forest campaign director at Greenpeace.
It will also give Greenpeace a comprehensive way to police bad actors. “It’s increasingly rare for us to come across consumer-facing companies that have their heads in the sand entirely, but the few that still do have a wake-up call coming to them one way or another,” said Skar.