The natural rubber supply chain truly runs the gamut of the world's socio-economic spectrum. At the bottom are the smallholders that tap Hevea trees on relatively small parcels of land, trying to bring in enough income to support a family. About 80 percent of the global supply of NR—near 14 million metric tons in 2018—comes from these farmers.
At the opposite end of the supply chain are mammoth corporations, including the tire manufacturers that buy 85 percent of the NR. In between are the rubber traders, government entities and other organizations that make sure the rubber somehow makes it from the producer to the buyer.
And how that supply chain works has been a bit of a mystery, but there have been activities to try to make for a more transparent and sustainable process for all going forward.
One of those activities is the Global Platform for Sustainable Natural Rubber, which held its inaugural general assembly earlier this year. Its stated purpose is to be an independent platform designed to improve the socio-economic and environmental performance of the natural rubber value chain.
Stakeholder organizations in the group include the tire makers; auto makers including Ford, General Motors and BMW; producers, processors and traders; civil society organizations; and affiliated entities.
BMW said while it doesn't directly buy natural rubber, it consumes 24,000 tons of rubber a year just for tires.
As part of its Sustainable Natural Rubber Policy, Pirelli recently launched a website called "Being Fast Takes Time," devoted to building public awareness of natural rubber. Based on the reportage and images of Italian writer and photographer Alessandro Scotti, "Being Fast Takes Time" covers the fundamental phases of the NR production and supply cycle, describing the lives of rubber smallholders and their cultivation and processing techniques.
And Continental started a joint project with a firm that has experience in farming and giving support to other agricultural sectors. The tire maker looks to build a documented path for the NR from the farmer to its tire plant.
These are small steps to start, but much needed to shed light on a value chain that has operated chiefly in the dark until now.