Last updated: Apr 2010
As western consumers lose confidence in attempts to certify sustainable palm oil, Rob Harrison describes the latest campaigns and outlines a possible Ethical Consumer response.
Action and reports
According to Greenpeace, the phenomenal growth of the palm oil industry spells disaster for local communities, biodiversity and climate change as palm plantations encroach further and further into forested areas. On February 22nd, the BBC’s fagship current affairs programme, Panorama, broadcast a report called ‘Dying for a Biscuit’. In it they explained how, despite attempts to address the issue, apparently protected forests in Indonesia were still being cleared for new palm oil plantations. This continued pressure on the habitat of the critically endangered orang-utan led to the report calling for consumer help. The BBC’s own website listed the involvement of major brands and retailers. listed the involvement of major brands and retailers.
In April 2008, Greenpeace had launched a campaign targeting Unilever’s brand ‘Dove’ with the message ‘Dove is destroying rainforests for Palm Oil’. Within 10 days Unilever had acceded to the main demand of the campaign – to support its calls for a moratorium on new palm plantations – and the campaign was called off. On March 17th 2010, Greenpeace turned its attention to Nestlé and Kit Kat, more details appear on page 30. At the same time, campaign websites calling on people to boycott or avoid palm oil in consumer products began to appear around the world – as far apart as Australia and the USA.1
In 2009, stories started appearing in the press about how thousands of tonnes of ‘certified sustainable palm oil’ was unsold as (recession-hit) western companies apparently reneged on promises to buy this more costly product.2
In an uncharacteristically combative response, WWF (a founder member of the RSPO – Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) published a ‘name and shame’ league table of member-company’s actual support for the project.3
Failing attempts to certify
Despite its attempts to make the project work, WWF itself became the target of campaigners in December 2009 as leaders from the global South protested outside its Geneva headquarters. According to protestors, WWF was greenwashing destructive corporate practices in the palm oil sector and beyond.4
In addition, in 2008, around 200 campaign groups signed the “International Declaration Against the ‘Greenwashing’ of palm oil by the RSPO.”What went wrong with the RSPO? The RSPO is, in many ways, no different to other global schemes to assure consumers and companies in the West that products they are using are not contributing to signifcant environmental or social damage. The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is perhaps the best known of these schemes, but others include the Marine Stewardship Council (fsh), and the Rug Mark and Organic labels.
Although such schemes are commonly ‘multi-stakeholder initiatives’ (in that campaign groups and companies can both be members), and they often deal with a lot of technical detail, this doesn’t disguise the fact that they are often at the cutting edge of some very difficult contemporary political debates. As we saw in EC110 for example, the FSC now has FSC Watch, a critical new organisation run by former members who feel the original aims have been unduly compromised by commercial pressures.
In simple terms the ‘political settlement’ at the RSPO has been too much in favour of corporate producers and has not done enough to appease the campaign sector. The presence ‘outside the camp’ of the two biggest international environmental groups (Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace) has been at the heart of the loss of consumer confidence in the RSPO scheme. Commercial pressures have also played a part. Palm oil has offered Western food companies a cheap and plentiful alternative to hydrogenated oils (or transfats) which can contribute to heart disease.5
Massive habitat loss
In addition, demand for biofuels – in part driven by misguided policy decisions in the West – has exploded. This means that Southern producers are – not for the first time – getting mixed messages from their Northern customers. Their public pronouncements are for ethical behavior, but the commercial pressure is for low-cost and plentiful supplies. Indeed, so lucrative is the new crop, that the rate of clearance of tropical forest is, if anything, increasing.6
The triple-whammy of species loss, climate change impacts and the effects on existing forest users – usually tribal peoples – has alarmed and drawn in a wide range of campaign groups. Some, like Friends of the Earth, are focusing on trying to find a regulatory solution through pressure on governments. For many though, the presence of high-profile brand-names in the supply chain, is too tempting not to call for consumer support – and palm oil has grown to become perhaps the biggest ethical consumer issue of the last twelve months. And with the RSPO unable to reassure consumers that it can address the ethical and environmental issues around new land clearance, the scheme is struggling for credibility.
This is not to say that the RSPO will never be able to deliver meaningful guarantees. Hopefully, pressure from campaigners and member companies (such as Unilever – for whom the project is no longer offering ‘reputational’ protection), may deliver sufficient improvements in the future for it to become an important player in the sustainable supply chains which the world needs in the coming years.
The organic option
Another sub-plot in this story has come from organically certified palm oil. Although there are few major organic certified producers of palm oil in the world at present, Daabon in Colombia is one of the biggest. The Body Shop and others saw the Daabon option as a way of trying to sidestep the problems at the RSPO whilst not abandoning the ingredient altogether. This was looking to be quite a good choice until September 2009 when stories emerged from Colombia of Daabon’s plans to expand its plantations, falling foul of local peoples who claimed that land rights were being violated and existing residents evicted.7
On the surface it appeared that, such was the demand for this wonder-product, even the usually impeccable organic networks were struggling to offer the guarantees people wanted – again in the same key area of new land clearance.
In the words of the inimitable USA magazine Grist, “Organic certification bans the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, but has nothing to say about rainforest management. That’s right - you could burn down pristine rainforest, plant it with palms, and still get organic certification.”8
It is possible that some kind of ‘fixed cut-off date’ such as we see in animal testing verification might be useful. Assurances that palm oil came from land planted before (say) 2005 might be what is required.
A new column for Ethical Consumer tables?
Ethical Consumer’s role is to reflect the criticisms and initiatives taking place in civil society back to consumers, and it is clear that the complexity and fast moving nature of this subject and attempts to address it – are such that our existing ranking criteria are struggling to cope. When the first stories around the social and environmental impacts of the palm oil industry were emerging nine years years ago, companies would receive a mark in the Habitats and Resources column if they were substantial users of palm oil. As more details emerged about the very serious climate and land rights impacts of palm oil expansion, additional marks in the Climate Change and Human Rights columns also began to appear – just by applying existing criteria.
Five years ago, when the RSPO still looked like it might be able to deliver some meaningful assurances, we began to give companies better marks if they were RSPO members. However, in the last two years, since the problems at the RSPO have become clear, we have stopped this practice. Nevertheless, our own researchers looking at some of the diverse initiatives companies are taking in this area (see, for example, the policy table in the Shampoo Buyers’ Guide in this issue), and ethical companies who come to us for advice, are still looking for a clear position on this subject.
One solution would be to have a new column called Palm Oil on our tables – probably between Habitats and Resources and Pollution and Our research team is currently split on whether a new column is a good idea. Now that we have largely rationalised our column headings, there is a concern that if we make a special case for palm oil, it would be harder to argue against extra columns for other specific issues – such as coltan or unsustainable timber. Some suggest that, as an alternative, we should run ingredients tables next to our ranking tables in those Buyers’ Guides for which palm oil is important.
Company uses no palm oil in its products or uses palm oil but has made a commitment to phase it out completely within three years.
Company uses palm oil in its products and has not taken adequate steps to address its impacts.
It is less clear at this stage what meaningful commitments a company could make to get a middle ranking.
Company uses palm oil in its products but either:
is a member of the RSPO and currently buys 100% certified palm oil and/or buys GreenPalm certificates for 100% of its supply.
or uses 100% organically certified palm oil has made a formal undertaking not to buy from Sinar Mas or other named problem producers
1 see e.g. www.palmoilaction.org.au and http://nopalmoil.wordpress.com/about/ and www.theproblemwithpalmoil.org/
2 Guardian 4/12/09 Supermarkets get slippery over palm green palm oil. Fred Pearce.
3 WWF Palm Oil Buyers’ Scorecard 2009 - October 2009
5 www.palmoilaction.org.au viewed 4/3/10 http://understory.ran.org/2008/08/14/amazing-stick-it-to-palm-oil-reports-and-pictures/
6 HSBC and the Palm Oil Sector in SE Asia Nov 2008 Forest People’s Program
First published Ethical Consumer issue 124, May/June 2010