A new scorecard that ranks the palm oil sourcing commitments of 30 top companies in the packaged food, fast food, and personal care sectors shows that 24 of them have inadequate commitments or lack commitments altogether.
The fast food sector was the worst by far in the scorecard produced by the US-based Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).
Only two fast food companies, McDonald’s and Subway, had strong enough commitments to receive points, and even those commitments were vague and outdated, the UCS said.
The personal care sector scores were mixed as many of these companies rely on Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) certification to meet their commitments. “This certification is an improvement over status quo production methods, but is not strong enough to protect all forests and peatlands,” said Calen May-Tobin, lead analyst for the UCS’s Tropical Forest and Climate Initiative.
“Companies such as General Mills, Procter & Gamble, and McDonald’s, which currently are relying on the RSPO standards, need to upgrade their commitments, policies, and practices with respect to palm oil production.”
Procter & Gamble was recently targeted by Greenpeace International in a damning report entitled ‘P & G’s Dirty Secret’.
Greenpeace accuses the company of contributing to climate change, key tropical biodiversity loss, and social deprivation. Procter & Gamble is sourcing palm oil from companies that are destroying wildlife habitat in Indonesia, says Greenpeace, citing one case in which a palm oil supplier is allegedly linked to killings of orangutans.
The secretary general of the Indonesian Palm Oil Growers Association, Asmar Arsjad, has been quoted as saying Greenpeace is conducting a “black campaign” that would hurt palm oil growers.
The UCS scorecard shows that very few companies in the personal care sector have a strong commitment to traceability. “This may be because they mainly use palm oil derivatives, which adds links to the supply chain and makes it more difficult to trace,” the UCS said. “but this should not be a justification for these companies having weak commitments.”
Nearly all the packaged food companies, except Kraft Foods, had commitments, and some were high achievers, the UCS said, but most had more work to do.
A number of companies, including Dairy Queen, Kraft Foods, Domino’s Pizza, Dunkin’ Brands, and Wendy’s, have no palm oil commitments at all.
Committing to deforestation-free supply
Six companies on the scorecard – personal care companies L’Oréal and Reckitt Benckiser and the packaged food companies Mondelēz, Nestlé, Unilever, and Kellogg – have already committed to purchasing palm oil that is deforestation-free, peat-free, and can be traced in a transparent way, although many would say faster action is required.
“The scorecard shows a mere half dozen companies leading the charge, with most of the others lagging behind,” said May-Tobin.
“These corporations should live up to their ‘wholesome’ branding by demanding sustainable palm oil. To do so would save tropical forests, rich with biodiversity, and help limit the severity of climate change.
“While it may be cheap in economic terms, palm oil carries a high environmental price tag. Palm oil production often relies on clearing forests or carbon-rich peatlands for plantations. All told, tropical deforestation accounts for about 10 percent of all climate change emissions.”
The UCS says that Danone, General Mills, HJ Heinz, PepsiCo, and ConAgra Foods have committed to source certified, sustainable palm oil through the RSPO. “But they lack deforestation- and peat-free commitments and have weak traceability or transparency commitments.”
Other companies that have commitments to source certified sustainable palm oil through the RSPO include Colgate-Palmolive, Clorox, and Henkel.
Avon and Estée Lauder are two of the companies that have weak commitments and have not pledged to buy 100 percent of their palm oil from sustainable sources.
Consumers can influence the market for palm oil, May-Tobin says. It was in fact two girl scouts in the United States, Rhiannon Tomtishen and Madison Vorva, who put the most public pressure on Kellogg, challenging the company for using palm oil in its Girl Scout cookies.
In a lengthy campaign, the girls highlighted the deforestation being caused by oil palm cultivation and the threats to endangered species. They eventually persuaded Girl Scouts of the USA to make a sustainable palm oil commitment and are still pushing for stronger action to protect forests and wildlife.
According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), palm oil plantations are the leading cause of rainforest destruction in Indonesia and Malaysia, who together produce close to 90 percent of the world supply.
The mass cultivation of palm oil is pushing the critically endangered Sumatran orangutan and tiger to the brink of extinction. Orangutans in Borneo are also seriously endangered.
Indonesia’s peatlands cover less than 0.1 per cent of the Earth’s surface, but their destruction is causing 4 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions every year.
Peat soils store as much as 18 to 28 times that of trees in the overlying forest.
According to Greenpeace, the annual clearing of Indonesia’s peatlands releases some 1.8 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases and some put the figure at 2 billion.
Indonesia’s forests are disappearing at a rate of more than nine Olympic swimming pools each minute, Greenpeace states.
May-Tobin said multinational companies held the fate of the world’s tropical forests in their hands. “If these companies demand deforestation-free, peat-free palm oil, the producers on the ground would be forced to change their palm oil practices.”
In December 2013, Singapore-based Wilmar – the world’s largest palm oil trader – announced that it would commit to supplying palm oil that was deforestation-free and did not violate human rights. The company expects all of its suppliers to be in compliance with its policy by the end of 2015.
The UCS welcomed Wilmar’s announcement. “The language sets a strong new standard for deforestation-free, peat-free, and exploitation-free palm oil,” said Sharon Smith, campaign manager for the union’s Tropical Forest & Climate Initiative.
“Wilmar indicated that they are responding to the rising market demand for traceable, responsibly produced vegetable oil. If Wilmar is genuine in its commitment, this could be a game-changer for the industry.”
Smith says the UCS will be watching closely to see if Wilmar is serious about protecting the environment, endangered species and indigenous communities.
The UCS has also welcomed the sustainability commitments made by the world’s second-largest palm oil multinational, Golden-Agri Resources.
The international demand for palm oil is massive. According to the WWF, about half the packaged food now found in supermarkets contains palm oil. It is present in all kinds of produce ranging from biscuits and peanut butter to chocolate and ice cream; it’s in all kinds of ready meals and breakfast cereals, and in shampoo, cosmetics, shaving cream, soap, and industrial lubricants.
Palm oil is now also being used to make biofuel, the production of which actually increases greenhouse gas emissions.
The results for all 30 companies are detailed in the UCS report, “Donuts, Deodorant, Deforestation: Scoring America’s Top Brands on Their Palm Oil Commitments”.
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