The importance of sustainable palm oil: a consumer’s perspective

feature articles

I recently attended a Palm Oil Seminar in Melbourne, Australia where speakers reOil palm fruitpresenting a cross section of organisations involved in the palm oil industry, including environmental groups, major suppliers and purchasers of palm oil addressed an audience of palm oil buyers and suppliers, brands and NGOs to discuss the risks and options around the use of palm oil in products sold in Australia. Representatives from orang-utan protection centres talked about their lifesaving work rescuing and rehabilitating orang-utans impacted by the destruction of their habitat by the palm oil industry, displaying images and footage relaying truly heart wrenching stories.

Despite this being an industry-led event, a number of interested consumers like myself were there to find out more about the palm oil industry and what companies are doing to sustainably source palm oil and reduce the impact their operations have on the environment, deforestation and wildlife.

The majority of Australians are unaware that palm oil can be found in so many products on supermarket shelves including food, personal care items and household cleaning products, and most consumers are unaware that each time they purchase a product containing palm oil, they are contributing to the problem.

Major buyers of palm oil including Ferrero and Nestle presented their policies on sustainable sourcing and harvesting of palm oil, demonstrating an ongoing commitment to no deforestation and eliminating exploitation in their supply chains. Companies like Ferrero and Nestle are more aware than ever before that power is with the consumer and if they’re not doing the right thing by adopting ethically, environmentally and socially sound operational and purchasing policies, the likelihood of consumers switching products heightens, significantly impacting on their profits. In 2010, people power resulted in Nestle changing their supply chain policy following a hugely successful KitKat campaign by Greenpeace which you can read about here.

As each speaker gave their presentation a sense of camaraderie could be felt in the room, a feeling that these people and the organisations they represent are well aware of the urgency of the situation, that they are taking action because time is NOT on their or anyone’s side: deforestation and species extinction is a VERY real possibility within the next 10 years.

One of the key messages from the seminar is that boycotting palm oil is not the answer. Despite its reputation as a “bad” oil responsible for causing widespread devastation and suffering at ground level, we simply cannot live without it for many reasons.

“The palm oil industry brings much needed revenue to developing countries like Indonesia and Malaysia, helping to raise the living standards of millions of people. It is versatile in use, relatively cheap and efficient to grow. It accounts for 65% of all vegetable oil traded globally and is found in around 50% of supermarket packaged products.” Source: TFT July 2015

Alternatives to palm oil which include sunflower, rapeseed, soy and corn oil would still result in increases in deforestation and environmental damage and there are many social, economic and financial factors that would need to be considered before going down this route to determine if any viable oil substitutes are suitable for long term production in developing countries.

Wilmar International, whose representative spoke at the conference, is one of a number of major suppliers of palm oil committed to eliminating deforestation and exploitation in their supply chains, joining buyers such as Nestle, Ferrero, Johnson & Johnson, Mars and Natures Organics who have all pledged such policies. These organisations are committed to sourcing certified sustainable palm oil that has no deforestation and minimal impact on the environment.

From a consumers perspective, it’s heartening to hear major suppliers and brands striving to do the right thing, but it’s important that these actions are followed right through the supply chain and that all organisations, large and small jump on the bandwagon and adopt similar policies that advocate for certified sourcing of sustainable palm oil, with the aim of adopting an active no deforestation  policy showing full tracking and traceability on palm oil supply from plantation to mill to end user.

This is when community led organisations like Palm Oil Investigations (POI) plays such an important role. Their growing army of Facebook followers (nudging 160,000) is indicative of how everyday consumers are taking the impact of palm oil production on endangered species and the environment so seriously. We, the consumer want to see change and we can make it happen.

The app that POI launched in March 2015 was the first step in giving power to the people. By scanning products on supermarket shelves we are empowered to make decisions on what to put in our shopping trolley. And if our usual packet of biscuits contains palm oil that is not certifiably and sustainably sourced, we can choose an alternative and let our favourite brand know that we have made the change. Its then up to them if they want to change their sourcing policy. If they do, we’ll switch back.

Attending the seminar has given me a greater appreciation of the importance of the palm oil industry on several levels and that advocating to stop the production of palm oil isn’t the answer to the problem.

Whilst there has been mass destruction of pristine forests since palm oil production first started on a global scale decades ago, we can use our voice and our purchasing power to help stop this. The key is to educate yourself as a consumer, be aware of the impact of your buying habits and how you have the power to influence change simply by choosing not to purchase products that contain unregulated palm oil.