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Sustainable palm oil?
Last Post 11/06/2014 22:36:46 by Patrick Jeavons. 10 Replies.
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Rob Harrison ECRA STAFF Senior Member Senior Member Posts:36
15/04/2010 15:08:46
    Over the last few years, researchers at Ethical Consumer have been debating the best way for consumers to send a clear message to companies about the environmental and social impacts of palm oil production. A recent growth in criticisms of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil appears to have undermined confidence in the ability of this process to deliver clear guarantees to consumers of sustainble supply.
    Because of this, ECRA is proposing moving to system of ranking companies which marks down any use of palm oil unless it is accompanied by a clear commitment to end its use within three years.

    We are also discusing whether to add a new column to our main rating tables dealing specifically with palm oil.

    If you would like to comment on either of these suggestions or just generally about palm oil, please make a post in this forum.

    For more information and background about this discussion please see the feature article on this subject at: http://www.ethicalconsumer.org/Comm...lmoil.aspx
    SPine New Member New Member Posts:1
    22/04/2010 11:46:30
    Regarding a “Palm Oil” criterion, “Sustainably-Produced Ingredients” is sufficient – presumably in place of “Product Sustainability” and Palm oil would simply fit into this category... no?.

    Regarding the tables generally, I don't believe they are too complex. Many factors affect sustainability and there is no escaping the fact that they are complex and sometimes contradictory.

    Finally, I have two (other) humble suggestions:

    1. Give marks out of 10 given for each category – a blob is too imprecise – and make the tables downloadable in Excel/CSV format so that readers can apply their own weighting factors if desired (this can be built in to the spreadsheet). Firstly because people have their own views on what is important. Secondly because if Ethical Consumer applies its own weightings it may be difficult to present these while retaining clarity.

    2. Remove “Boycott Call”:

    - If the table is doing its job then one would expect the reason for any boycott call to be in amongst the other criteria - it's a form of double counting. If this is not the case it suggests something is missing from the criteria.

    - The other criteria are applied to the company's own actions. It seems to me that this is as it should be. Ultimately, the question being asked is, what is the company doing wrong and what could it do better? The fact that a third party has called for a boycott does not address this question.

    - The other categories are coathangers on which to assess directly a company's ethical performance, in a (hopefully) rigorous and scientifically robust manner. In contrast, a boycott call is not something which the company does or doesn't itself do, and no judgement appears to be being made on the validity of the boycott call. (I stand to be corrected on this.)

    Hope this helps!

    Steve Pine

    ECRA Bloggers New Member New Member Posts:5
    30/04/2010 19:07:57
    In asking for a company to commit to stop using palm oil in three years (or 10 years or whatever) what are we assuming the effect of some companies with consumer facing brands in those areas of the world most susceptible to citizen consumer activism is going to achieve in terms of sustainability? Surely we're not claiming this is going to stop the palm oil trade. I believe about a third of global palm oil is used by Europe - the majority is used elsewhere. I'm not aware of any histrical precedent where the trade in a basic commodity, agricultural or otherwise, has been stopped in such a manner (perhaps any manner, when the trade is economically profitable). We know it will have one certain effect - remove those companies that have an economic incentive to encourage sustainability in the palm oil supply chain from that supply chain. So the effect would seem very likely to remove pressure for sustainability in the palm oil supply chain, without substantively reducing the demand for palm oil.
    At the level of the individual consumer the palm oil issue highlights the issue of the motivation for ethical consumer behaviours. The individual ethical consumer could strictly set about boycotting palm oil from the products that they buy - but what would this achieve? Unless this was part and parcel of a collective movement which had a credible chance of effecting the environmental damage caused by the trade all it would achieve is a sense of personal virtue. The ethical consumer might be able to say to themselves in 20 years time that the extinction of the orangutan was nothing to do with them. Now there may be something said for that position of achieving virtue. But the orangutan would not be any less extinct. So perhaps there is an argument that attending primarily to taboos in one own's consumption, regardless of the global outcome, is a less ethical course to attend to, than say, attending to the messy reality of trying to make rapacious industries more sustainable. In reality attending to personal virtue in consumption is often coupled with enagaging in social and political struggle. And identities are powerfully created through personal consumption taboos, as evident with vegetarianism and veganism - identities which themselves have had real social and political effects. But the idea that not buying palm oil, personally or corporately, is going to do anything to stop the devastation being wreaked by the palm oil industry is not at all self evident - an argument for it demands to be made if it is to be a credible position. The idea that palm oil can be denied a global market, therefore removing the demand that creates the problem, is not credible.
    Rob Harrison ECRA STAFF Senior Member Senior Member Posts:36
    04/05/2010 10:55:26
    Thanks for these posts. The scenario proposed by New Member above is one we had not considered and, as they point out, is not desirable.
    Other outcomes though are possible. The intended outcome is that companies communicate consumer demands for an exit strategy into the RSPO process, and that the RSPO tighten up their standards to a level where it is acceptable for consumers. The obvious comparison is the FSC timber label where this balance is largely maintained.
    It is also worth noting that consumer pressure on the palm oil supply chain is equally strong in Australia and the USA. See for example:
    ECRA Bloggers New Member New Member Posts:5
    10/05/2010 15:17:09
    "The intended outcome is that companies communicate consumer demands for an exit strategy into the RSPO process, and that the RSPO tighten up their standards to a level where it is acceptable for consumers." [above]
    Surely these intended outcomes are mutually incompatable? 'an exit strategy' presumably relates to this thread's original proprosal, ie. to: "mark down any use of palm oil unless it is accompanied by a clear commitment to end its use within three years". If companies are encouraged to pull out of a process (the RSPO) it's not credible to suggest they'll commit resources to tighten up standards in that process. If the obvious comparison is the FSC, would you be asking companies to demonstrate they are pulling out of the timber business in order to improve standards within the FSC? This surely doesn't make sense.

    In terms of proprosed ratings www.ethicalconsumer.org/CommentAnalysis/Features/Palmoil.aspx you need to make an argument why a policy commitment to pull out of the trade is judged better than buying 100% certified palm oil. The logic implied is that the certification is flawed, but if so are you really saying to consumers don't buy Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO)? i.e. Don't support producers who are trying to support sustainability standards?
    You cite the example of the FSC, whose certification standards have been similarly subject, rightly, to ongoing criticism. Should we advise people not to buy FSC? Obviously there is a point at which labels and standards are just so much greenwash and actively detrimental. But if this is the case for the RSPO/CSPO then why give middle rating to companies that are "a member of the RSPO and currently buys 100% certified palm oil".
    The problem seems to me that there hasn't been a substantive argument made as to whether the RSPO\CSPO is a) actively detrimental\greenwash or b) working to introduce credible sustainability standards, and serving as a mechanism through which NGOS can pressure companies to up their game, albeit imperfectly and in need of vigilant oversight and testing by NGOS.
    Without taking a view on this arguably you won't have meaningful scoring that relies of RSPO\CSPO distinctions.

    DavidT New Member New Member Posts:4
    13/05/2010 17:09:51
    A vote: no, the tables are not too complex, at least, I don't think so. Is there some perception that they are? It would be difficult to imagine them being simpler without dropping important information.

    As for palm oil, I already avoid products containing it (as listed in the ingredients), regardless of any certification.

    ECRA Bloggers New Member New Member Posts:5
    17/05/2010 12:32:58
    The World Rainforest Movement arue the RSPO is greenwash, see resources and current email campaign below:

    ‘International Declaration Against the ‘Greenwashing’ of Palm Oil
    by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil www.regenwald.org/international/englisch/news.php?id=1070

    Open Letter to RSPO and WWF Oil Palm monocultures will never be sustainable www.wrm.org.uy/plantations/RSPO_letter.html

    Dear friends,

    On 17th and 18th May, the World Bank will hold one of a series of stakeholder consultations about their future palm oil strategy. Last year, the World Bank suspended all funding for the palm oil industry following evidence about the disastrous impacts of their funding for Wilmar International in West Kalimantan, Indonesia. Now, they are discussing a strategy for resuming palm oil investments. Peasant and indigenous peoples' organisations and many other civil society groups in many countries have agreed that palm oil monocultures can never be sustainable. Please tell the World Bank that they must they never fund palm oil again. Please go to


    to take part in this email action. Many thanks.
    leonie ECRA STAFF Senior Member Senior Member Posts:7
    08/06/2010 17:28:48

    One of the questions posed is whether we should add a new column to our main rating tables dealing specifically with palm oil.

    I don't think I am in favour of this. One of the issues is that the multiple problems caused by palm oil production are complex to represent using our ratings system. We currently deal with this by marking companies down by half a mark in the categories of human rights, habitat destruction and climate change. Although this is not particularly neat, I think it is adequate for our purposes.

    The production of many commodities and extraction of many raw materials has multiple impacts - probably the mining sector is the best example of this. I think we need to be willing to represent these impacts using our ratings system as it stands, rather than developing new columns for specific ingredients/products. Who is to say that the impact of palm oil production on a community and area of land in South East Asia is more significant that the impact of a gold mine in Africa? Both have huge human rights and environmental impacts. I think it is a difficult case to justify taking one item out of our usual ratings system and dealing with it separately. Is the rationale that the cumulative impact of palm oil production justifies this? In which case that cannot be attributed to the individual company that we reference, as their use of palm oil will be limited.

    We are also likely to see a huge hike in the production of other agricultural products used in bio-fuel production, with a similar set of associated problems. We certainly can't set up a new column for them all...

    Best wishes,
    NickJ New Member New Member Posts:1
    05/08/2010 17:00:25
    What the above poster seems to miss is that it wouldn't simply be one ethical shopper refusing to buy a product, but many ethical shoppers all refusing to buy a product, and this sort of boycott pressure is known to have positive results - even in the palm oil issue, look at what Greenpeace achieved with Nestle, and the domino-effect of other companies following suit.

    That said, I think the "boycott call" column can be misleading. Boycotts are typically called against the largest company in the market, or the worst offender, and should not be taken to mean that other, non-boycotted companies are not also guilty of the same offence.

    Like David Taylor above, I also try to avoid palm oil and vegetable oil in my shopping, however I do buy products from companies who I know to be using "legit" oil (either certified or non-palm), and would welcome a widely adopted certification which included a "badge" on products, similar to FSC wood and paper, MSC fish, Soil Assoc etc organic branding and so on to make this process easier. The risk of such a badge, however, is that it could make sustainable palm oil seem a more ethical choice than sunflower oil, and I don't believe this to be the case.

    As for the tables, I think that a specific column for palm oil seems a bit like jumping on the bandwagon of the current ethical focus, and as Leonie points out, we can't have a column for every aspect of the ethical decision-making process - including it under habitat destruction and climate change seems sufficient.
    Patrick Jeavons New Member New Member Posts:1
    11/06/2014 22:36:46
    Being a small scale retailer, and I know its a long time ago that this thread was created, but surely we should begin by making obligatory for the major supermarket chains to label products made with "vegetable oil," which are in fact made with palm oil.

    Then the demand for this produce can be lessened at the consumer level.
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