Palm Oil and Consumers

Should we boycott palm oil? We share our latest advice for consumers

Ever since palm oil was identified as a problem commodity nearly 20 years ago, Ethical Consumer has been following the story and trying to work out the best way for consumers to respond. In 2018, voices expressing concern about the damage it is causing – to forests, climate, people and endangered species – are getting, if anything, even louder.

This is despite the fact that, during this period, a whole raft of new initiatives to try to solve the problems have been launched involving hundreds of companies, international campaign groups like Greenpeace and WWF, huge certification schemes like the RSPO and even some governments and the World Bank.

The trouble is that none of these initiatives appear to be working, with deforestation to meet the growing demand for palm oil and other commodities showing no signs of really slowing down. In April this year, with the UK supermarket chain Iceland announcing a ban on palm oil in own brand products from 2020, consumer opinion is, if anything, hardening against the idea that palm oil could ever be sustainable. 

Image: palm oil plantation

Greenpeace links brands to forest destruction

Greenpeace and many other key campaign groups have chosen to work outside the RSPO. Instead they choose to name and shame companies that are failing to ensure that their supply chains are free of deforestation, damage to peatlands and the worst human exploitation. In March 2018, Greenpeace International released a report called ‘Moment of truth: time for brands to come clean about their links to forest destruction for palm oil’.

It examined progress towards pledges made in 2010, when members of the Consumer Goods Forum (CGF) made a clear commitment to clean up their supply chains by 2020. Greenpeace stated “with less than two years to go until 2020 ... corporate commitments and policies have proliferated, but companies have largely failed to implement them.

As a result, consumer brands, including those with ‘no deforestation, no peat, no exploitation’ (NDPE) policies, still use palm oil from producers that destroy rainforests, drain carbon-rich peatland and violate the human rights of workers and local communities – making their customers complicit in forest destruction, climate change and human rights abuses.”

Before publication, Greenpeace challenged 16 members of the CGF to demonstrate their progress by disclosing the mills that produced their palm oil, and the names of the producer groups that controlled those mills. Eight of the global brands did so. The eight who did not initially respond were: Ferrero, Hershey, Kellogg’s, Kraft Heinz, Johnson & Johnson, PepsiCo, PZ Cussons and Smucker’s.

There has been a problem of big brands sourcing certified sustainable palm oil from Indonesian and Malaysian companies which are linked to other companies engaged in some of the worst deforestation. Given the intensity of the problems, Greenpeace is now arguing that consumer brands should only be sourcing from company groups whose entire business is NDPE.

What about biofuel?

Oxfam campaigns against the use of food crops as biofuels, and the bar chart below, taken from one of its reports, shows how the recent growth in demand for palm oil in Europe has largely been caused by increasing demand for biofuels. Most of this is for transport, with a smaller amount burnt for electricity generation.

Graph: EU uses of palm oil by sector

This led New Scientist this year to publish an article arguing that “plans to ditch palm oil are missing the real issue: forget food, it’s in your car”. At the core of this problem is the now widely derided EU policy to ensure that 10% of transport energy comes from renewable sources by 2020, with increases in subsequent years.

The European Parliament, in January this year, voted to end subsidies for palm-based biodiesel from 2020, but the vote has no force and the final decision will depend on EU wrangling. The power of the biofuel lobbies in Brussels are enormous and, for those of us in the UK, the issue is further muddied by Brexit.

A techno-fix on the horizon?

One problem raised by many commentators is that there aren’t clear alternatives to palm oil in food that could be used at the same scale without becoming problematic as well. Palm oil is very high yielding per acre, and the vegetable oils currently able to replace it would use a lot more land.

It is therefore logical that laboratories around the world are trying to find a viable alternative. Scientists from Abu Dhabi claim to have found an algae that “naturally produces large quantities of palmitic acid – the fatty acid that is a major component in palm oil.” And a research team from the University of Bath claim to have produced a palm-like oil from yeast.

However, Greenpeace chief scientist Doug Parr has expressed his reservations with these projects, saying: “I think you have to be quite beady-eyed about the challenges of getting from the lab to commercial production ... on the sort of scale that’s going to impact the palm oil industry. We shouldn’t imagine for a moment there is a sort of ‘get out of jail free’ card for the tricky corporate and political transition that needs to be taking place in countries where palm oil is a major damager of important forests.”

What can consumers do?

At Ethical Consumer, we have taken the view that avoiding palm oil altogether or choosing products with the very best sustainability certifications are both reasonable responses to a very complex set of issues. Our product guides and palm oil ratings are designed to help people make this choice, whichever side of the line people personally fall.

We highlight companies which are palm oil free and those that are not, but get best marks. We also incorporate into our ratings external criticisms, such as those from Greenpeace, of companies’ palm oil supply chains. The full details of how we arrive at the rankings appears on our website and, for logged-in subscribers, in the company stories that sit behind the table scores.

This year though, the sense of urgency is increasing. A report from Changing Markets published in April 2018 has cast further doubt on the ability of certification schemes to help.

However, the key campaigners in this field – Greenpeace included – are not arguing for a consumer boycott of all palm oil. It is recognised  that pressure from western consumer markets is at least driving some environmental standards into the industry but lots of growth is coming from markets – like those in China and India – without similar demands for environmental standards.

Of course, the growing use of palm oil is also heavily linked to the increase in the amount of processed foods consumed in the west. Cooking fresh meals can have multiple benefits such as avoiding fat, sugar, salt as well as palm oil. 

In addition, it is always worth keeping up with the name-and-shame campaigns from the big campaigners like Greenpeace and SumOfUs. Strategically avoiding the worst companies out there will help create pressure in the right place in the short term, and it certainly makes sense to focus on the companies with the biggest market power. Unilever, for example, uses over 1 million tonnes annually and, therefore, its power to affect change is far greater than a company using less.

And finally, acting as citizens as well as consumers is important too. Keeping up the pressure to remove palm oil from, for example, transport biofuels will be a key part of any plan to halt the destruction associated with this most troublesome of crops.

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