Behind the guide
Report on our work with the Rainforest Foundation
This week the Rainforest Foundation has launched a new palm oil guide with the research from Ethical Consumer.
The guide rates and ranks companies based on their palm oil usage and covers a number of products from chocolate to shampoo. You can find the guide here.
Below Ethical Consumer's lead researcher Ruth Strange talks more about the guide.
This research was an update to the Rainforest Foundation's palm oil guide. We looked at over 100 companies and their use of palm oil and palm derivatives.
The main thing we looked for was how much of these ingredients were certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), and by what mechanisms. The easiest mechanism is 'Book & Claim', where a company offsets their uncertified palm oil use by buying Green Palm certificates. It shows a bit more commitment if a company uses the mechanism known as 'Mass Balance', as there is more effort and cost involved in establishing a supply chain that includes some certified palm. They would get a better score however if they used certified palm oil that was segregated from uncertified palm oil.
1) Did you have a dialogue with the companies? Which were the best/worst companies at responding to requests for information?
We contacted all 106 companies to send them a questionnaire, but only 29 sent information back.
Many of the bigger companies are members of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) and so have already had to collate figures on their usage of different palm ingredients. Other companies such as Suma and Faith in Nature had to work to get this information together for the first time.
Venture Foods, who make Organico chocolate, unfortunately replied that 'this is not something we can help you with', and Ozkleen initially stated 'We do not use any palm oil in our products', but did not respond again when asked to clarify if they used any palm derivatives. All the other companies we had figures for in the Homecare sector, did use ingredients derived from palm oil, so we assumed Ozkleen did too.
2) What stands out from the research? what is the headline?
The headline is that a third of companies (36/106) have improved their score since the previous ranking in 2013. For example, Hain Celestial jumped from -1 to 14 points. It had previously been suspended from the RSPO for not submitting information, but now submitted figures showing its palm use was 93% RSPO certified, with 63% of that Segregated.
This reflects a general increase in proportions of palm ingredients that are certified by RSPO mechanisms.
However, there has only been a slight improvement in proportions that are certified by the more challenging mechanisms.
For example, companies we had figures for in the skincare sector in 2013 (using 2011-12 figures) were certifying only 40% of palm derivatives, and all of that was through the Book & Claim mechanism.
In 2016 (using 2014 figures), 90% of palm derivatives used by the same companies were certified. However, only 6.5% of these certified derivatives were through segregated supply chains.
For the one million tonnes of actual palm oil they used (rather than derivatives), in the 2013 ranking 70% was covered by Green Palm certificates, and 28% was not certified at all. In this ranking, 89% was covered by Green Palm, and 10% was from Segregated supply chains.
If we look at five of the UK supermarkets, in the 2013 ranking, 40% of palm oil used was Green Palm, 38% segregated, and 18% Mass Balance. In this ranking, only 6% was Green Palm, 41% Mass Balance, and 52% Segregated, so there has been improvement there.
3) Is there anything you'd like to research further? or develop?
I would like to know more about how the RSPO standards are applied on the ground. What changes do plantations or smallholders typically have to make in order to become certified? And how do organic standards compare exactly?
4) Are ethics improving in this sector?
As we can see from the comparisons between results in 2013 and 2016, the proportions certified are improving, and in some sectors there is noticeable improvement in types of certification too.
This reflects increasing traceability from growers to mills, without which it would not be possible to certify ingredients. Many companies are also working on the traceability of their own supply chains and you can read more about that in the 'notes behind the scores'. Full traceability is needed to identify whether ingredients are linked to deforestation, as even RSPO standards do not protect secondary forest, or peatlands.
5) Did anything surprise you?
The lack of transparency from many companies surprised me. Quite a few made misleading statements that gave the impression they were doing better than they were, by just talking about palm oil and not palm derivatives.
Even those who were taking positive steps to certify more of their ingredients, sometimes didn't communicate that at all, or didn't communicate it clearly.
6)What would be your one wish in this sector for?
I would want consumers to ask companies for more transparency!
I would want companies to be more transparent!
Find out more about the campaign and the research behind the rankings.