The slippery politics of ‘sustainable’ palm oil (commentary)

Commentary by Laura Humes

What is the last thing you ate? If it was any kind of processed food, chances are that in the ingredients list you’

ll find the words “palm oil.” According to the Rainforest Action Network (RAN), palm oil is found in roughly half of packaged foods in U.S. supermarkets.

Food companies made the switch to palm oil as a cheap alternative to trans fats, but international conservation and humanitarian groups have long illuminated the dark side of palm oil, including its negative social and environmental impacts.

Palm oil is ubiquitous, so why is it so contentious? According to RAN, agricultural production is the leading cause of rainforest destruction globally, and palm oil is a major culprit. Palm oil production involves slash-and-burn deforestation, producing significant greenhouse gas emissions and destroying tropical ecosystems. Its production also raises numerous human rights concerns, including the displacement of communities and the use of forced and child labor.

Oil palm plantation in Sabah, Indonesia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler /

Land conversion to make way for palm oil plantations is also linked to the burning of peatland, one cause of the vast fires that raged across Indonesia this year—fires that produced more carbon pollution than the daily emissions of the entire United States.

In short, your diet could be contributing to deforestation, mass fires, carbon emissions, displacement of indigenous communities, habitat loss, declines in wildlife populations, human rights abuses, and labor violations.

Awareness campaigns urge people to think twice before buying products containing palm oil, but consumer action has a limit. Consumer-oriented campaigns, like boycotts, shift the responsibility to individuals. But to create real systemic change, public campaigns would do better to target the food industry itself.

Food companies purchase palm oil through distribution partners—the processers, traders, and retailers that buy up palm oil from growers and distribute it to manufacturers. Top companies like Kellogg’s, Kraft, Nestlé, General Mills, Mars, and Pepsico then use that palm oil as an ingredient in the foods we eat.

Because food companies represent the primary channels through which palm oil enters international markets – and governments have historically struggled to regulate issues of trade and the environment – the most effective tactic is to target the processes that bring palm oil from plantation to supermarket.

Oil palm plantation in a lowland area near Sandakan, Sabah. Photo by Rhett A. Butler /

Food companies should take a leadership role by conducting thorough analyses of their sourcing partners, committing to responsible purchasing guidelines, and ensuring the environmental and social responsibility of their operations.

To date, campaigns targeting food companies by demanding change in palm oil purchasing policies have been easily written off. Companies simply point to their procurement guidelines or supplier codes of conduct, which typically contain ambiguous commitments to ethical and sustainable sourcing.

Even companies seen as industry leaders have loopholes in their policies.This September, in response to the fires raging in Indonesia, PepsiCo released a statement reiterating its 2010 commitment to 100% certified sustainable palm oil, and added new commitments to total traceability in the supply chain and the establishment of a confidential process to report policy violations.These principles should, in theory, keep the negative impacts of palm oil production in check.

However, a closer look reveals that there is still a long way to go. Despite its commitment as a company to sustainable and ethical sourcing, PepsiCo’s joint venture partners—which use the same branding—are not required to comply with these policies.

One of these joint ventures, Indofood, has a well-documented history of forced and child labor violations, slash-and-burn rainforest destruction, and peatland burning. Because joint ventures are allowed to use PepsiCo branding, this means that not all products with PepsiCo labeling are actually compliant with the company’s palm oil policy. This is particularly troubling because Indofood is the largest maker of PepsiCo products in Indonesia. The exclusion of joint ventures is a veil that obscures the dark side of PepsiCo’s stance on palm oil.

Despite this, PepsiCo’s palm oil policy actually positions the company to demonstrate leadership by influencing one of its main business partners to adopt more ethical and sustainable practices. Using 457,200 metric tons of palm oil annually, PepsiCo holds major power to use market pressure to transform its partners for the better.

This passive stance is simply not adequate, and does not demonstrate industry leadership. Given the egregious impacts of palm oil production, food companies cannot simply assume that their suppliers act responsibly unless mechanisms are in place to ensure social and environmental responsibility.

Beyond company-level action, we also need industry-wide standards for transparency and accountability to ensure responsible, rigorous, and effective supplier codes of conduct.

A fresh bunch of oil palm fruit. Photo by Rhett A. Butler /

The industry has tried to create methods of certifying palm oil producers as environmentally and socially responsible, but there is room for growth and improvement. With nearly 2,500 members, the RSPO represents the largest share of palm oil traded under a certification standard. However, the RSPO has faced sharp criticism from Greenpeace and the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) for protecting the financial interests of its members and failing to explicitly prohibit deforestation, ensure supply chain transparency, and follow through to rectify violations.

In reaction, a network of international conservation and labor groups established more stringent standards through the Palm Oil Innovation Group (POIG) as an alternative to the RSPO. While POIG’s influence is minimal at present, it shows potential as a tougher watchdog for the palm oil industry.

But it is also imperative that food companies themselves step up to the plate by taking a proactive stance to ensure responsibility, instead of passively relying on industry watchdogs to evaluate companies’ sustainability measures.

Creating binding systems of accountability and transparency and committing to investigating and taking action against suppliers who source palm oil in an irresponsible manner is the first step towards industry leadership among food companies.

As individuals, we must call on companies to be leaders by demanding rigorous and effective standards through public campaigns, seeking out products that demonstrate social and environmental responsibility, and educating ourselves about the processes that bring our food from plantation to supermarket.

This commentary was produced under the Macalester College Student Voices project. The views expressed are those of the author alone.

Author: mongabay

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