Palm oil is used extensively in food and toiletries, but its production has had a devastating effect on South Asian rainforests, clearing habitats for endangered species like tigers and orang-utans, while also adding to carbon emissions.
The oil has a growing image problem – and the world’s biggest manufacturers know it.
Last week Unilever halted purchases of palm oil from Indonesian company PT Smart, after Greenpeace alleged that its parent group, Sinar Mas, is involved in illegal deforestation and peatland clearance in the region. Sinar Mas is a member of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), which was set up with the aim of ensuring the oil’s sustainable production and use.
The world’s two largest food companies, Nestlé and Kraft, also source palm oil from PT Smart, and both have announced internal investigations.
The fact that these global giants are taking Greenpeace’s allegations so seriously reflects their desire to distance themselves from unscrupulous suppliers…which is great news, right?
Not so fast.
Yes, it’s commendable that they are sincerely concerned about these allegations, but what about the rest of their supply chains?
If the Nestlés, Krafts and Unilevers (among several others) can only commit to sustainable sourcing by 2015, then they know that a lot of the other palm oil they’re using is currently sourced from environmentally damaging plantations. Snubbing one particular supplier is not going to be good enough – and it is unlikely that consumers will hold off judgement for that long.
Almost unanimously, market research organizations are predicting that sustainability will take centre stage in 2010, with consumers more likely to read ingredients lists with an eye on ethics.
And there is sustainably sourced palm oil out there.
The uncomfortable issue remains that not all of the world’s sustainably produced palm oil is being sold as such, meaning that the rest is mixed with non-sustainable, and millers do not receive the premium they are due. The World Wildlife Fund estimates that a mere one percent of sustainably sourced oil is sold as certified.
That said, the first 500-tonne shipment of certified sustainable palm oil reached Europe just last year and it is hoped that strides will be made over the next five years towards greater availability. But investment in infrastructure and scheduling of future shipments is heavily dependent on demonstrating that strong demand is there.
WWF’s senior policy officer for food and agricultureAdam Harrisonsaid in October that some companies are buying “fairly substantial quantities … but now it’s a question of whether the majority will follow.”
He added: “If they do, it will transform the market, giving producers the confidence to grow more sustainable palm oil.”
With consumer demand for sustainability on the rise, companies must demand accelerated palm oil certification. If they don’t, consumer backlash could hit them harder than they think; palm oil could become the next ingredient to be rejected entirely.
Now is the time for manufacturers to take the lead and eliminate every drop of unsustainable palm oil from the supply chain – well before 2015.
Caroline Scott-Thomas is a journalist specializing in the food industry. Prior to completing a Masters degree in journalism at Edinburgh's Napier University, she had spent five years working as a chef. If you would like to comment on this article, contact caroline.scott-thomas ‘at’ decisionnews.com.