Palm oil certainly is a hot topic right now: NGOs including Greenpeace and WWF have continued to raise awareness of the destructive nature of the palm oil industry and the devastating effects it has had on wildlife and their rainforest habitats, mostly across Indonesia — not to mention the effect that deforestation has on climate change. The campaigning is working — global brands from the food and cosmetics industries, along with their suppliers, have responded with sweeping commitments to ensure their palm oil is sourced without further destruction of rainforests and threats to already endangered wildlife; as of palm oil trader GAR’s zero-deforestation commitment last week, over half of the world's palm oil is now covered by zero-deforestation pledges.
The urgency behind the palm oil situation is that it is used in thousands of products that Americans eat and use daily, including deodorants, toothpaste, ice cream and face creams, and the amount sourced per year has skyrocketed to match demand. The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) says it’s critical that companies producing these products make strong commitments to sourcing palm oil that prevents deforestation. Palm oil production often relies on clearing forests or carbon-rich peatlands, areas of decayed vegetation, for plantations. All told, tropical deforestation accounts for roughly 10 percent of all climate change emissions.
So today, UCS has released a scorecard grading the palm oil sourcing commitments of 30 top companies in the packaged food, fast food and personal care sectors, which shows 24 of these household brands have inadequate commitments or lack commitments altogether.
Donuts, Deodorant and Deforestation: Scoring America’s Top Brands on Their Palm Oil Commitments rated the 10 largest US companies in each of the three sectors and found that the majority do not have commitments in place to fully protect forests or peatlands (the fast food sector scored the worst by far). Only two fast food companies, McDonald’s and Subway, had strong enough commitments to receive points, though their commitments are vague and outdated. The personal care sector scores were mixed as many of these companies rely on Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil 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. All of the packaged food companies aside from Kraft Foods have commitments; some were high achievers, but most have more work to do.
“Multinational companies really hold the world’s tropical forests in their hands,” said Calen May-Tobin, lead analyst for UCS’s Tropical Forest and Climate Initiative. “If these companies demand deforestation-free, peat-free palm oil, the producers on the ground would be forced to change their palm oil practices.”
Some companies are demanding better for their consumers. Six companies on the scorecard have already committed to purchasing palm oil that is deforestation-free, peat-free, and can be traced in a transparent way. Personal care companies L’Oréal and Reckitt Benckiser, as well as CPG giants Mondelēz, Nestlé, Unilever and Kellogg (Kellogg updated its commitment after the scores were tallied), all have strong commitments.
Momentum is building as more companies recognize the importance of protecting tropical forests. If other major companies follow the lead of the forward-thinking companies above, UCS says pressure would build on the palm oil industry to adopt sustainable standards.
The Scorecard is designed to challenge the producers of these iconic American foods and products to demand a higher standard for palm oil: Colgate-Palmolive, Dunkin’ Brands, General Mills, McDonald’s, PepsiCo and Procter & Gamble (against which Greenpeace launched a massive campaign last week, demanding the company end its role in deforestation through its careless sourcing of palm oil). If these companies committed to transparently sourcing traceable, deforestation-free and peat-free palm oil it would create a tipping point that could transform the industry.
“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.”