Australian confectioner declares it’s palm oil-free with ad featuring orangutan playing drums, switches to sunflower oil

Darrell Lea is the first Australian supermarket brand to remove palm oil from its products, reacting to consumer concern that the ingredient is to blame for deforestation in Southeast Asia. Palm oil supporters say the replacement ingredient, sunflower oil, is less eco-friendly.

Darrell Lea orangutan ad
Darrell Lea's decision to go palm oil free came after years of pressure from customers and activists who said the ingredient was responsible for deforestation and the destruction of orangutan habitat in Southeast Asia. Image: Darrell Lea

An orangutan playing the drums to George Michael’s ‘90s pop anthem ‘Freedom!’

That was how Australian confectionary company Darrell Lea announced it had removed palm oil from its products this week.

The 30-second commercial goes with the caption “the choices you make can change her world”. 

Darrell Lea’s decision to go palm oil-free came after years of pressure from customers and activists who blame the ingredient for the destruction of orangutan habitat in Indonesia and Malaysia, the two biggest producer countries.

The company said it had taken almost two years, and had meant the discontinuation of one of its brands, to remove palm oil from more than 100 of its products. 

Marketing director Tim Stanford said in a statement: “Like our consumers, we recognise that the ethical sourcing of ingredients is paramount. After all, what good are delicious products if it comes at a cost to someone else?”

Darrell Lea has switched to sunflower oil instead, which it concluded was the best substitute from an environmental and product quality perspective, after a review of more than 200 potential ingredients.

“Unlike oils such as coconut, sunflower oil doesn’t require a tropical environment in which to grow, therefore isn’t linked to rainforest deforestation,” the company said on its website.

Darrell Lea admitted that sunflowers are not grown commercially in Australia, so the oil is imported from Europe and Argentina.

Darrell Lea is the first major Australian supermarket brand to go palm oil-free, following the lead of mainly European brands which have cut the crop from their products. 

This year, the European Union is to ban palm oil for use in biofuels, a move Malaysia’s Federal Land Development Authority has called “discriminatory” as it favours Europe-grown oils such as rapeseed and sunflower. 

Anita Neville, senior vice president of corporate communications for Golden Agri-Resources, a large palm oil firm, said she is disappointed Darrell Lea didn’t choose to invest in sustainable palm oil and opted for “the easy out” to win over customer sentiment.

Though detractors claim that there is no such thing as sustainable palm oil, it is defined as that which is grown on land has been assessed for its conservation and carbon value, farmed with consent from local communities, and cultivated without using fire to clear land.

Darrell Lea used palm oil certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil before deciding to remove the ingredient from its products altogether.

“Darrell Lea could have used its unique position within the Australian confectionary industry to educate Australian consumers about sustainably produced palm oil and to contribute to the transition underway in one of Australia’s nearest neighbours. Instead they have chosen to walk away,” said Neville, herself an Australian.

The company committed to sustainably sourced cocoa, which it uses in its chocolate brands, in 2019.

“It is unfortunate that Darrell Lea could see the value in investing in the transition of the cocoa sector to sustainable production practices—a sector that has been blighted by child labour, human rights and environmental concerns for decades—but was prepared to walk away from similarly investing in the transformation of another key ingredient - palm oil,” commented Neville.

She added that sunflower oil is not only sourced from further afield than Southeast Asia, but requires more land to grow, and more fertiliser and pesticide per hectare than oil palm, pointing to a 2018 impact study of edible oils by International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

“Switching from palm oil to other vegetable oils isn’t a solution, it may just redirect the issue to a different set of habitats and species,” she said.

Stanford said that he hoped more businesses in Australia switched away from palm oil. “We call on all businesses, not only in the confectionery industry, but across the board to look into their supply chain and make better decisions about the ingredients they use,” he said.

The company pointed out that while palm oil is cheap to produce and has a higher yield than other crops, millions of hectares of carbon-rich rainforest are cleared to keep up with demand.

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