Fairpalm — a Truly Sustainable Option? 

Traidcraft cookies and cleaning products contain fair trade palm oil. Ruth Strange got the lowdown from Traidcraft's Sourcing Director Joe Osman about the challenges and potential of this work.

How did the supply of fair trade palm oil come about?

Traidcraft, pioneers of the UK fair trade movement and focused on commodities since the 1990s, connected with the US soap company Dr Bronners to bring fairly traded palm oil to the UK in 2014.

We had joined the RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) to get our head around the issues, and talked to other members such as Greenpeace and WWF, who liked the idea but whose focus was on affecting the entire industry. I then went on a scoping visit to Ghana, where there are some large palm plantations, but not as huge as those in Indonesia and Malaysia. The majority of palm oil producers in Africa are smallholders who are generally intercropping (growing different crops together) rather than practising monoculture. Michael Bronner, the president of Dr Bronners, says “All major commodity crops can be farmed sustainably or not”. They were already working with smallholders in Ghana to source organic palm oil and invited us to team up with them.

Image: palm oil producer

The extraction of the oil is another important part of the project, and we work with an organisation that has fair trade and sustainability ingrained in its mission. Extraction from the palm fruit is done in a low-tech small-scale way, providing further employment. The project does not yet have the equipment to extract oil from the palm kernel too.

What led Traidcraft to pursue this project?

Traidcraft have worked to address trade-related injustices for over 39 years. We developed various products as vehicles for crops widely grown in ‘developing countries’, such as coffee, cocoa, sugar and tea. Our bars and biscuits contain Fairtrade ingredients, but also other components such as wheat or vegetable oil that were not available as Fairtrade.

When the UK baking industry switched over due to health concerns from hydrogenated fats to palm oil, we began to think seriously about how we could apply fair trade principles to this new ingredient.

This fitted with Traidcraft’s approach, making direct links between smallholders and consumers, as well as our focus on high environmental standards. Palm oil can be a great crop for smallholders, as you don’t need much land, the crop is fairly low maintenance, and high yielding.

Why do some of the 'Clean and Fair' range have the Fairtrade logo but not all?

Some of the ‘Clean and Fair’ range do carry the Fairtrade logo, but this is for the coconut oil which is another ingredient. As Fairtrade International has not yet created standards for palm oil, Fairpalm itself cannot use the Fairtrade logo, but has its own logo which you will see on our ‘Clean and Fair’ cleaning range, and the cookies in which it is used. Fairpalm is certified organic by the IMO, who have integrated fair trade principles, such as pre-financing and fair prices, into their ‘Fair for Life’ organic standards.

Could Fairpalm be taken up by more manufacturers?

While Traidcraft have had interest from other manufacturers and hope to see its use spread, Fairpalm is not necessarily a straightforward substitute for any existing use of palm oil, which comes in many forms. Fairpalm is extracted from the fruit and arrives to the UK as crude palm oil, and to Traidcraft as ‘RBD’ (refined, bleached, deodorised). The price of Fairpalm is more than RSPO or organic palm oil, so the ‘Clean and Fair’ range of cleaning products are positioned alongside eco-products where customers are already willing to pay a bit more.

To scale up and develop a certification system that could be used in the wider world takes time, and can be a difficult process as it can bring in people who don’t passionately believe the principles and will be content to just comply with the rules as part of a business plan. At this early stage fair trade palm is done by companies that believe in it, and have the values embedded in their systems and culture. However, we hope to be a catalyst for wider change which will ultimately benefit more people.

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