Some good news on palm oil
Companies respond to criticism of RSPO
As the palm oil debate grinds on it comes as a welcome change for Ethical Consumer to report in its latest palm oil special issue that rarest of things: some good news.
Growing numbers of companies are now responding positively to the widespread criticism of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil for both its weak standards and the failure to enforce them.
In an effort to achieve more genuinely sustainable palm oil, these companies are adopting policies that go beyond the current RSPO guidelines including a target of zero deforestation and development on peat lands, the so-called DPF commitment.
Rainforest cut down to make way for plantation in West Kalimantan, Indonesia. (Rainforest Action Network / Flickr)
Last year alone 'no deforestation' pledges from companies were up over 170% on the previous year. And of the companies rated in Ethical Consumer's current issue, five have DPF commitments: Arla, Mars, Mondelez, Nestlé and Unilever.
“We recognised that there was concern among consumers and retailers about the environmental costs of palm oil production and we identified areas where we could go beyond RSPO standards,” says Theis Brøgger from Arla, explaining the background to the Danish dairy company's decision to adopt DPF policies in 2014.
Similarly Mondelez's move beyond the RSPO's standards was the culmination of working with numerous stakeholders for several years including WWF and UNDP.
"Sustainable palm oil is important for the long-term growth of our business and should be universal and accessible to all," says Dave Brown, Vice President of Global Commodities and Strategic Sourcing at Mondelez.
One immediate benefit of adopting the DPF policies is that these companies have all seen the ratings improve for their biscuits, spreads and ice cream under Ethical Consumer's palm oil-specific scoring system.
The other impact is the signal that this sends to the wider palm oil market.
“The companies that have voluntarily signed up to DPF palm oil are all consumer-facing and produce some of the best known brands in the world. However, they are still relatively small players in the global palm oil market,” explains Leonie Nimmo from Ethical Consumer.
“The key benefit of these DPF commitments is the collective pressure that these companies are having on the bigger palm oil producers and traders that most consumers have never heard of and which are responsible for the majority of the global trade in palm oil.”
“If a critical mass of their customers demand improved supply chains then the impact on the ground could be significant.”
Many critical of RSPO
Despite the RSPO launching its voluntary 'RSPO Next' consultation this August, which embodies some of the DPF standards, many are still critical of the RSPO's current approach:
“These improved standards need to be made compulsory for all members and rigorously enforced by the RSPO,” says Jago Wadley, senior forest campaigner with the Environmental Investigation Agency.
“Until such measures are taken, the RSPO cannot claim to be ensuring sustainable palm oil and is instead holding back reform of the sector.”
In response a spokesperson for the RSPO says that:
“The RSPO believes that its standard must be broadly applicable to allow entry to all stakeholders and to aim for 100% inclusion and constant progression once stakeholders have become members. In this manner an entire industry can be transformed and not just a few exemplary companies.”
Leonie Nimmo believes that the next big challenge for the RSPO is the imminent destruction of vast areas of rainforest in West and Central Africa to make way for the next wave of palm oil plantations.
“Many of the palm oil companies moving into Africa are RSPO members and there is a big question mark over how the organisation intends to accredit new palm oil operations whilst at the same time acting against deforestation.”
A spokesperson from the RSPO replies, saying that:
“With Western and Central Africa opening up to palm oil, it is important that the RSPO is active in these countries to ensure that sustainability goes hand in hand with palm oil production from the start.”
More effective monitoriing
One way that this development in Africa could be effectively monitored is through the groundbreaking ForestLink technology that's being pioneered by the Rainforest Foundation UK.
“ForestLink gives forest peoples the opportunity to send near-instantaneous, highly geographically accurate reports of illegal felling of trees, such as by timber or palm oil companies, from anywhere in the world, even where there is no mobile, phone or internet connectivity,” explains Simon Counsell, Executive Director of the Rainforest Foundation UK.
The system, which is currently being trialled in Cameroon and supported by UK's Department For International Development, uses innovative technology to collect information on illegal activity in a forest using a tablet computer or smartphone.
This is then transmitted to an online map via a satellite modem transmitter in as little as 20 seconds and costing around the same as a standard text message. The live incident reports show where urgent action is required to prevent deforestation.
“Our ‘real time’ technology is potentially a game-changer, as it helps empower forest people even in the remotest areas and could transform the way that forests are monitored and governed,” believes Counsell.
Hi-tech solutions with the goal of improving sustainability are also being employed in Indonesia where earlier this year Cargill began using drones to monitor land use including identifying High Carbon Stock and High Conservation Value forest areas.
“Drones by themselves do not equal sustainability, what counts is how you use them,” says John Hartmann, chief executive officer of Cargill Tropical Palm.
“We always talk about transparency, traceability and being accountable for what we do. It’s important for us to mean what we say and to act accordingly,” adds Hartmann. “That’s what this is all about.”
Read Ethical Consumer's special report on palm oil.