GM commits to 'green' natural rubber for millions of tires

GM and tire makers don't know the cost of using more sustainable farming practices, but they hope it will be equal to or ultimately less than today, in part by increasing rubber yields. Photo credit: GM

DETROIT -- General Motors said it will commit to buying sustainable natural rubber for the 49 million tires it buys annually, an initiative aimed at helping small rubber farmers while protecting company profits by ensuring the material’s long-term availability.

The automaker today said it is developing a set of purchasing requirements that call for sustainably harvested rubber and encouraging other automakers to follow similar practices to reduce deforestation and uphold human and labor rights.

“This isn’t just about going green,” said David Tulauskas, GM’s director of sustainability. “It’s about driving real business results.”

GM said it wants to only use rubber that does not contribute to deforestation, was harvested in ways that contribute to the economic and social development of an area, and is managed in a transparent and traceable manner. The company and tire suppliers it is working with on the initiative -- including Bridgestone, Continental, Goodyear and Michelin -- say they can’t fully replace natural rubber with synthetics, but they can ensure that it’s obtained responsibly.

Phon Tongmak, a rubber tree farmer (back), at his rubber plantation with a friend at Cha-uat district in Nakhon Si Thammarat Province, in southern Thailand, on Jan. 18, 2017. Rubber trees only grow in a narrow band of the Earth near the equator and are highly susceptible to disease. Photo credit: REUTERS

“The properties you get from that material, we haven’t been able to replicate in the laboratory,” said Juan Botero, Continental’s vice president of original equipment sales of passenger and light truck tires for the Americas. “Mother Nature does a fantastic job.”

GM and tire makers said they don’t know the cost of using more sustainable farming practices, but they hope it will be equal to or ultimately less than today, in part by increasing rubber yields. Rubber trees only grow in a narrow band of the Earth near the equator and are highly susceptible to disease, so getting the entire industry to help protect the resource is important, they said.

GM plans to meet with stakeholders starting in June to set criteria for rubber purchasing and develop an industry road map by year end.

“Anytime a brand like GM gets involved, it brings momentum and acceleration to the overall initiative,” said Jim DeMouy, Bridgestone Americas’ vice president of environmental, health, safety and sustainability. At the same time, he added, “it’s just too big an issue for any one company to address.”

You can reach Nick Bunkley at nbunkley@crain.com -- Follow Nick on Twitter: @nickbunkley

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