The US campaign for deforestation-free palm oil
Calen May-Tobin from the Union of Concerned Scientists reports.
Our work on palm oil at the Union of Concerned Scientists started as an effort to dispel the prevailing myth that deforestation is caused mainly by small-scale farming and indigenous communities (so-called “slash and burn” practices). We had been working to reduce deforestation for a number of years as a means of addressing climate change.
When we looked into this issue we found an overwhelming amount of scientific research that showed that over the last twenty years the major drivers of deforestation have been large-scale commercial actors. The prime culprits were cattle, soy, wood products (timber, pulp and paper), and palm oil. With a greater understanding of what was causing tropical deforestation, we set out to solve the problem. We quickly homed in on palm oil as our major area of focus, in part because it was a relatively new large-scale driver and was experiencing rapid expansion.
A new kind of advocacy
Since tropical deforestation was being driven by businesses, it was only by changing business practices that we could solve the problem. The key to changing the palm oil industry was to get the ten or so traders – companies which process and ship palm oil, and control most of the palm oil traded globally – to commit to only buying deforestation-free oil. These companies are large and generally unknown to most people, making them fairly unresponsive to public pressure. Following the lead of European NGOs, UCS and other groups recognised that the best way to move this industry was to raise public pressure and attention by targeting consumer companies that use palm oil. These consumer companies would then put pressure on the traders.
The strength of the ethical consumer
While the deforestation caused by some palm oil production can seem very far away, the products containing palm oil are those that consumers know and use every day. Most consumers don’t want to stop using their favourite products but at the same time they don’t want those products to harm the environment. As it turns out this consumer loyalty has tremendous power when it comes to changing companies’ practices. In the age of Twitter and Facebook, companies are more responsive to consumer demands than ever before, so when these ethically-minded consumers speak up, the companies listen.
It’s this power that UCS, in partnership with a number of other NGOs, tapped into to drive rapid change in the palm oil sector. Together we rallied our large number of supporters to demand that companies establish policies guaranteeing that they will only source palm oil that doesn’t contribute to deforestation. In total these consumers sent hundreds of thousands of e-mails, tweets, and Facebook posts resulting in over twenty companies adopting such deforestation-free policies.
Success and the future
The success this effort has seen over the last few years has been truly impressive. As recently as 2013 only one consumer company, Nestlé, had committed to using deforestation-free palm oil. Today, well over two dozen companies – ranging from personal care producers to the world’s largest fast food chains – have committed to go deforestation-free.
But commitments are only the first step and palm oil is only one driver of deforestation. In the coming years NGOs and consumers need to keep a watchful eye on these companies to ensure that they are actively implementing and enforcing their deforestation-free commitments.
What’s more these companies should remove all deforestation from their supply chains, whether it is from palm oil, cattle, soy, wood products, or other smaller drivers of deforestation.