Brazilian meat firm’s A- sustainability rating has campaigners up in arms

·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Bloomberg/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Bloomberg/Getty Images

The award of an A-minus sustainability grade to the world’s biggest meat company has raised eyebrows and kicked off a debate about the rating system for environmental and social governance.

Brazilian meat company JBS has previously been linked to deforestation in the Amazon, where its slaughterhouses process beef from ranches carved out of the Amazon, Cerrado and other biomes. But in the latest Climate Change Report by the influential rating organisation CDP, the multinational got a grade of A- for its efforts to tackle climate change – up from B in the previous assessment – and was given a “leadership” status award.

The high score, which was based on self-reporting by JBS, has provoked incredulity. Twenty civil society groups are now calling on the London-based CDP (formerly the Carbon Disclosure Project) to strip JBS of its A-minus score amid accusations of greenwashing and misleading investors, supermarkets and consumers.

In a letter to CDP, the signatories, which also included Environmental Investigation Agency, Sustain, Ecologistas en Acción and Friends of the Earth, argued it was “wrong, misleading and damaging” to reward JBS with leadership status. “This could not be further from the truth,” the letter claimed, which argued that JBS had a record of deforestation and continued to underreport its supersized climate emissions.

Glenn Hurowitz, the founder of the US-based Mighty Earth, which organised the campaign, said: “We want everyone who has dealings with JBS to know the truth about their climate impacts. This is grade inflation of the most egregious variety.”

JBS originated in Brazil and grew globally with the support of the national development bank. Almost half of its revenue now comes from the United States, where it sells household brands including Pilgrim’s Pride, Moy Park, Seara and Primo. It also has a significant presence in Australia and strong sales in Europe and China. The company website boasts: “We feed the world with the best.”

The company has a fast-growing carbon footprint that is now almost the size of the UK’s. Last year, a study by the Institute of Agriculture and Trade Policy advocacy group estimated the São Paulo-based company had processed 26.8 million cattle, 46.7 million pigs and 4.9 billion chickens, leading to a more than 50% surge in emissions over the previous five years to 421.6m metric tonnes. This calculation was based on a model developed by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization that included so-called scope 3 emissions, which include animals in the company’s global supply chain.

JBS criticised this assessment as inaccurate but the company has not published its own assessment of its scope three emissions.

This was not a requirement for the CDP ranking, which relies more on voluntary disclosures of information and bases its scores on company plans and strategies – such as JBS’s pledge to reduce emissions to net zero by 2040 and to achieve zero deforestation across its global supply chain by 2035 – rather than independently verified data.

The improved grade was celebrated by JBS, which posted the news on the front of the company website, under the headline: “The largest and most respected global platform for environmental information raised JBS’s Climate Change 2022 score to A-, above the industry average.” The story below noted that an A- score means “the company is implementing the best market practices in the area assessed” and observed that the average in the food and beverage industry is C.

This will have an influence on the company’s bottom line and its social licence. CDP is considered the gold standard for environmental ranking. Its assessments are used by financial institutions, governments and supermarket chains. On its website, CDP boasts that it “supports thousands of companies, cities, states and regions to measure and manage their risks and opportunities on climate change, water security and deforestation. We do so at the request of their investors, purchasers and city stakeholders”. The result it said was a “system that has resulted in unparalleled engagement on environmental issues worldwide. CDP has also been recognized externally as the best organization for evaluating companies’ environmental and social governance”.

Márcio Astrini of the Climate Observatory said the high grade was “curious and contradictory”. JBS has said that it aims to eradicate illegal deforestation from its supply chain by 2025 and achieve zero deforestation by 2035. “Can this deserve such a good score?” Astrini said.

Paulo Barreto, a senior researcher with the independent Amazon monitoring institute Imazon, said he was surprised JBS was awarded such an impressive grade given it recently declined to participate in a new “Radar Verde” tracker.

When the Guardian asked CDP why it had given JBS such a positive evaluation, spokesperson Will Aslan said the ratings group was now carrying out an internal review of the JBS score and the impact on its methodology. The transparency charity is also considering changes so there is more reliance on public evidence and less reliance on voluntary disclosure. “We recognise that A- is too high a score for a non-public response, so we will change our classification criteria to reflect this in future.”

JBS said deforestation was not included in its last report because guidance on calculating targets for land-use change was only released by the Science Based Targets initiative last year but would be incorporated in the future. It said all emissions calculations were independently verified according to accounting standards set by the greenhouse gas protocol. Despite its high emissions, reluctance to provide scope 3 data and dealings with illegal deforesters, the company promised it would improve in the future: “Our CDP disclosure is a mark of our commitment to transparency as we continue to advance sustainability actions on our journey to net zero by 2040. This includes leading industry efforts to zero deforestation in the Amazon by 2025.”

The company will continue to face questions over the sincerity of its commitment. Mighty Earth has accused JBS of greenwashing in a complaint to the US Securities and Exchange Commission that alleges $3.2bn worth of “green bonds” issued by the meat company were fraudulent and based on misleading information to investors. The A– score may well prove an element in that case.

Hurowitz said CDP wasn’t set up for greenwashing “but that is the danger it faces if this stands”.

“There is a risk that gullible financiers may be misled by this,” he said. “As we all learned at our mother’s knee, self-praise is no praise at all.”