With consumers and regulators rejecting “trans fats,” palm oil is making its way into more and more processed foods, as well as the household and beauty products it’s been in for ages. But some corporations aren’t sourcing palm oil responsibly, resulting in deforestation and habitat destruction.
WASHINGTON — The U.S.-based consumer goods manufacturer Procter & Gamble is being accused of contributing to deforestation and destruction of critical habitat in Indonesia, due to insufficient safeguards around its sourcing of palm oil.
The company makes some of the most popular household and personal care items in the world, including Head & Shoulders shampoo, Tide detergent, Gillette shaving gel and Pampers diapers. Yet each of these products uses palm oil or related products that Greenpeace, a watchdog group, says are not sustainably sourced.
The company reportedly used a total of 462,000 tons of palm oil from 2012 to 2013, but Greenpeace considers just 10 percent of this to have been produced responsibly. On Tuesday, nine Greenpeace activists were arrested at a public demonstration meant to draw attention to these issues outside of the P&G headquarters in Cincinnati.
According to a yearlong study carried out by Greenpeace and Indonesian NGOs, P&G is sourcing its Indonesian palm oil from multiple suppliers that appear to be implicated in the illegal clearing of forests, which affects both endangered wildlife and local communities’ livelihoods. This is not only resulting in negative impacts on the endangered Sumatran tiger, but appears to have led to the mysterious killing of protected orangutans.
The report also notes that P&G is becoming increasingly isolated as a major multinational company that has failed to ensure full transparency of its palm oil supply chains or to make an immediate “no deforestation” pledge. Recent months have seen a series of high-level commitments to take such steps, including those by Unilever, Kellogg’s, Nestle and Wilmar, the latter of which is Asia’s largest agribusiness and the world’s most important palm oil trader.
“Rather than destroying the future for Indonesia’s people, its wildlife and the climate on which we all depend, Procter & Gamble, other consumer companies and their suppliers must use their positions as leading global corporations and significant palm oil users or traders to make a genuine contribution to Indonesia’s development,” according to the Greenpeace report released at the end of February.
“The first step is an immediate commitment to sourcing only traceable, responsibly produced palm oil that is free from deforestation. Specifically, Greenpeace demands that global corporations including Procter & Gamble free their brands from dirty palm oil from companies implicated in the unfolding disaster befalling Indonesia’s tigers and orangutans.”
The study found that P&G purchases palm oil from three particularly problematic producers and traders, Kuala Lumpur Kepong Berhad (a Malaysian company), BW Plantations and Musim Mas (both Indonesian companies). According to the investigation, land concessions owned by these companies have experienced substantial deforestation, as well as deliberately lit forest fires, destruction of peat deposits that offer a potent source of carbon, and depletion of orangutan and tiger habitat.
Over the past year, orangutan bodies have even been found buried in shallow graves around BW Plantations concessions. Local villagers told researchers the animals were “murdered,” though the case is still under investigation by the authorities.
P&G did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this story. However, its website does outline a 10-year sustainability plan through 2020, one goal of which is to “confirm that all palm oil purchases have originated from responsible and sustainable sources by 2015.”
In a statement, Areeba Hamid, a forest campaigner at Greenpeace International, told MintPress News that such aims are “greenwash.”
“The fact is, its supply chains are tainted with forest destruction,” Hamid said, “and these suppliers are part of the so-called sustainability organization P&G relies on.”
Indonesia is currently seeing one of the highest rates of deforestation on Earth. Greenpeace estimates that rainforest area the size of nine Olympic-sized swimming pools are being cut down in the country every minute, and palm oil is thought to be the main motivator of this destruction.
Production of palm oil is extremely resource intensive, requiring massive monocultured plantations and the use of chemicals that inhibit the growth of any other flora. The sector has also been rife with child and even slave labor.
Indonesia currently supplies nearly half of the world’s palm oil, and much of the rest comes from Malaysia. Global demand for the product has grown exponentially in recent years, both for human consumption and as a key ingredient in biodiesel. In the United States, new legislative moves against “trans fats” have also led to a spike in the use of palm oil, a common alternative now widely used in processed foods.
Use of palm oil in the United States alone has increased by some 500 percent over the past decade, according to the Rainforest Action Network (RAN), an advocacy group. The group estimates that palm oil is currently found in roughly half of all packaged foods on U.S. shelves. Last year, a RAN report singled out 20 prominent snack food producers using palm oil in their products, including Campbell Soup, General Mills, Heinz, Hormel, PepsiCo and Hershey, among others.
“While some companies are beginning to take steps to address their palm oil problem, none have yet adopted and fully implemented adequate safeguards to eliminate conflict palm oil from entering their supply chains and contaminating their products,” the report found.
“These big, global food companies have the power, through their supply chains, to drive a transformation in the way palm oil is now commonly produced. Increased consumer and citizen pressure on these companies is a key ingredient for success.”
Largely due to this consumer pressure, the industry is currently seeing a surge of sustainability-related reforms. Such steps began a decade ago with an initiative called the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), a series of voluntary standards created in 2004.
However, many environmental groups tracking the palm oil sector, including Greenpeace and RAN, say the RSPO standards have failed to make palm oil production sustainable. Indeed, each of the concessions highlighted in the new Greenpeace report — those owned by Kepong Berhad, BW Plantations and Musim Mas — were RSPO-certified.
“Clearly the RSPO standards P&G relies on are not enough. The sooner it commits to ‘No Deforestation,’ the sooner customers can free themselves from the widespread forest destruction scandal P&G is making them a part of,” Greenpeace’s Hamid said.
“Only 10 percent of the palm oil P&G purchases is RSPO-certified, but even if P&G could get to 100 percent by next year, it would not be able to guarantee that forest destruction is not tainting their supply chains. P&G needs to stop wearing the RSPO badge as if its suppliers’ membership somehow guarantees ‘sustainability.’”
Critics who say the RSPO has yet to live up to its potential point to spotty enforcement of its standards or, in other cases, to standards that are not strong enough or don’t yet exist. In recent months, the growing realization of this ineffectiveness has led several multinational companies – including Unilever, Nestle, L’Oreal, Kellogg’s and Ferrero – to unilaterally adopt stronger standards.
“We’ve seen some real, encouraging movement from some of the biggest players in the industry. There’s no question this is a step in the right direction,” Laurel Sutherlin, a spokesperson for the Rainforest Action Network, told MintPress.
“At the same time, all that really matters is being able to see the change on the ground, and it’s still too early to track that progress. What’s needed now is for new policies to be thoroughly implemented all the way down to the plantations, to provide verifiable evidence that labor abuses are not happening, that forests and endangered habitats are not being cut.”
Despite recent progress, Sutherlin notes that some of the largest companies in the sector have yet to come up with any meaningful commitment to ensure customers they have cleaned up their palm oil supply chains. He points in particular to Cargill, the largest importer of palm oil into the United States, as well as PepsiCo and ConAgra.
RAN and Greenpeace are co-founders of a new safeguard initiative aimed at strengthening the RSPO standards, known as the Palm Oil Innovators Group (POIG). Sutherlin said a key focus of the new standards is on transparency and traceability within corporate supply chains, an element he said is fundamental to any substantive safeguard process.
“The RSPO allows for the clearance of secondary forests as well as the development of carbon-rich peatlands, both of which the POIG charter forbids. POIG members also commit to much stronger and more verifiable protections for workers and communities impacted by palm oil expansion,” Sutherlin said.
“We’re at a pivotal point right now, where this issue is no longer as obscure as it once was. We have real companies on the move, but big laggards are still out there. It’s absolutely crucial that they see the writing on the wall and catch up with their peers who have taken on leadership positions.”