Ditching Unsustainable Palm Oil: Should We Avoid It Altogether?

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Palm oil has been back in the news recently, specifically Iceland (the supermarket not the country) banning its use. This has proven a very difficult one for me to reconcile, I feel very strongly about the situation, which is not as clear-cut (excuse the pun) as it might seem.

On one hand I completely see the merit of a boycott, it’s one way to limit the market and attempt to halt the destruction of this pristine habitat and threat to endangered species. The impacts of deforestation are shocking, heart-breaking, lamentable. Along with the major issues of deforestation and associated impacts, the production of palm oil raises a number of other issues, including conflict, human rights abuses and air pollution. The die-hard environmentalist in me wants to shout “boycott!” from the rooftops.

BUT… is it as simple as that? Looking at the bigger picture food security is a massive challenge, and will only continue to be with the human population ever-increasing. Palm oil is a large market and without a doubt is extremely efficient at producing oil. It produces 4-10 times more than comparable crops which require more land and associated resources (and of course this makes it more cost-effective). It is ridiculously versatile, used in over 50% of products you’ll find in a supermarket. The industry also employs about 4.5 million people – what will they do if there is a complete ban? No doubt it will force their hands – but who’s to say that it won’t lead to another industry that is equally destructive?

Earlier this week Iceland announced they were banning Palm oil in all of their own brand products. They are the first (and currently only) UK supermarket to commit to an all out ban. Iceland’s efforts towards sustainability are commendable (they are making huge leaps forward with plastic too), it’s fantastic to see such a mainstream retailer taking the lead (and they were good enough to answer some of my queries on Twitter this week too). Their official stance on palm oil is as follows:

“Until Iceland can guarantee palm oil is not causing rainforest destruction, we are simply saying ‘no to palm oil’. We don’t believe there is such a thing as ‘sustainable’ palm oil available to retailers, so we are giving consumers a choice about what they buy.” – Richard Walker

Executives from the company have been to Indonesia, witnessed the destruction first hand and felt like the steps being taken towards sustainability are not sufficient enough for them to justify using sustainable certificated palm oil alone at present. In their video, Richard Walker, Iceland’s MD, describes what he saw:

So then what is actually being done to make palm oil more sustainable? There are a number of organisations working towards more sustainable production, the key players being; the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), the Palm Oil Innovation Group (POIG) and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). RSPO is a not-for profit that unites stakeholders across the sector and developed the criteria for sustainable certification, POIG are a multi-stakeholder initiative that strives to achieve the adoption of responsible palm oil production practices by key players in the supply chain and they are developing new models for best practice in the sector, and (if you don’t already know) the WWF are one of the biggest wildlife charities on the planet.

RSPO recently responded to Iceland’s announcement with a statement from their CEO:

“We fully share Iceland’s concerns about the environmental impact of palm oil, but we do not agree with the solutions they are adopting. Before getting rid of palm oil, we should ask ourselves: what is the impact of the alternatives? We should let consumers know that palm trees produce 4 to 10 times more oil per hectare than any other oil crop. Therefore eliminating palm oil might lead to the use of more land with higher risks of deforestation.” – Darrel Webber

The palm oil supply chain is complex, allowing for multiple issues with traceability. Palm oil goes from plantation to mill for extraction, from the mill to the refinery (to be split into its constituent products) via traders, then from the refinery to the eventual manufacturing process (into the final product, which could be anything from chocolate to biofuel to make-up).

So a mill could receive palm fruit from multiple growers (not all of whom are necessarily sustainable) and a refinery could receive palm oil from multiple mills, and a manufacturer oil from multiple refineries thus making it very difficult for any company to make claims of 100% sustainability. That is where RSPO certification comes in… all organisations in the supply chain that use RSPO certified sustainable oil products are audited to prevent mixing with non-sustainable products.

RSPO certified 19% of all palm oil produced at the end of 2017, with many major brands committing to 100% RSPO certified sustainable. Of the four supply chain models, two of the pathways the palm oil has to be physically separated from the conventional palm oil (to be certified as 100% sustainable), one is mixed with conventional palm oil (and certified as such) and in the other, retailers can buy credits from RSPO certified organisations.

The RSPO certification scheme works much like any other management system, a standard is set which palm oil producers can work to and claim compliance with the RSPO Principles and Criteria, once third-party verification and certification by an independent, accredited Certification Body has taken place. Growers are assessed for certification once every 5 years and annually assessed for continued compliance. The RSPO principles and criteria are also reviewed regularly and are currently undergoing their latest revision.

The WWF is a huge advocate for the development of sustainable palm oil and aims to ensure socially acceptable and environment-friendly production and sourcing of palm oil and increased demand for, and use of, goods produced under such practices. The WWF aims to do this by working with RSPO, POIG, responsible financing and investment and eliminating incentives for palm oil production that lead to habitat destruction. The also provide a really useful scorecard to help you work out which brands are responsibly sourcing their palm oil.

Certifying sustainability in the industry evidently needs some development. 19% may be certified but this means 81% palm oil on the mass market last year was not. So what do manufacturers do if they are unable to get hold of 100% sustainable palm oil? Manufacturing process can take years and a lot of cash to perfect, (and let’s be honest companies are first and foremost about profit) so chances are they’ll buy mixed or completely non-sustainable.

Added to this certification schemes are not infallible, they can be open to abuse (I have seen this first hand, albeit a very different scheme), as claimed by a Clare Oxborrow of Friends of the Earth in a recent interview with Huffpost. In the same article Oxborrow calls for legislative measures in addition to voluntary certification schemes. The availability of “mixed” certification is also not ideal, while providing a degree of transparency it does not negate the fact that these companies are receiving oil from growers that may be contributing to habitat destruction.

Greenpeace has also been critical of the RSPO certification scheme and claims that many of their members are taking no steps to avoid large-scale deforestation and displacement of people. Greenpeace have produced reports (Cooking the Climate, 2007, Still Cooking the Climate, 2017) on the industry in Indonesia which make for interesting reading. The original Cooking the Climate report showed that many of the world’s biggest consumer brands were connected to rainforest and peatland destruction via palm oil supplied by traders.

In Still Cooking the Climate Greenpeace reviewed 11 of the biggest traders supplying to the mass market and despite most brands and traders adopting a ‘no deforestation, no peat, no exploitation’ (NDPE) policy, they concluded that “on its current trajectory, the palm oil industry (and therefore its customers) has no chance of delivering deforestation-free supply chains by 2020”. Greenpeace however, do explicitly state that:

“We’re not against palm oil or the palm oil industry. What we are against is any palm oil that comes from plantations converted from forest and peatland areas. However, at the moment it’s impossible to determine where palm oil comes from, so companies should stop trading in palm oil from suppliers known to be involved in forest conversion. We also want to see them immediately support a moratorium on further forest and peatland destruction.”

At the end of the day true sustainability is about the environment, the economy and society. We have to be realistic. Companies want to make money, people want to make a living, and we want to do this without ruining the environment. The only way to achieve this in the long run aside from population control (…that’s a whole different ethical discussion…) is to push for sustainability, adopting whole life-cycle approaches and shifting our consumption habits.

While a boycott is certainly one tool in the tool box (supply and demand and all that), we need to be asking ourselves in the long-term is it really the most favourable option? Would targeted or short-term boycotts help drive sustainability, whilst ensuring the damage is not merely shifted somewhere else? Would it be better to focus on sustainable production and work with producers? Increase uptake of certification? Increase transparency and traceability in the supply chain? Implement legislation and punitive measures? All of these things in combination?

These are all questions I am going to continue to ponder, research and will endeavour to update you all about. I am for one really pleased to see all of the debate on social media at the moment, if nothing else it continues to raise the issue in a public forum and hopefully will inspire people to think about their individual buying choices and subsequent impact on the environment.

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