British upmarket retailer Selfridges strips palm oil from 300 own-brand products

High-end department store chain Selfridges is the second major British retailer to try to remove palm oil from its own-label products in a year. Palm oil’s major certification body RSPO says Selfridges decision is “unfortunate” and questions the sustainability of the oils it will use instead.

Selfridges products
Selfridges products. The department store chain has removed palm oil from 300 of its own-label products because of concerns over the failure of certification to deliver sustainable palm oil. Image: Selfridges on Instagram

Selfridges, a high-brow department store chain in the United Kingdom, has announced it has removed palm oil from its own-label products in a move to distance its brand from deforestation and biodiversity loss in Southeast Asia, where the commodity is cultivated.

It is the second British retailer to attempt to remove the controversial oil from its products in a year. High-street supermarket Iceland first announced this move in April 2018, but was found to be still selling own-label products containing palm oil at the start of this year.

Selfridges has said that 300 products in its own range are now palm oil-free, and now contain alternative edible oils.

It’s unfortunate that Selfridges has taken a stance from which it cannot have a positive impact.

Darrel Webber, chief executive officer, Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil

Selfridges’ managing director, Simon Forster, said the move was about the company “buying better to inspire change”.

“We believe that until certified palm oil guarantees zero deforestation, our customers should be given the option to buy palm oil-free products,” said Forster.

“Our expectation is that all brands we work with are aware of and actively engaging with the issues surrounding palm oil and deforestation,” he said.

Forster’s comments take aim at the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), the palm oil industry’s main certifier, which was set up in 2004 to address the forest destruction and human rights issues related to palm oil in the countries where it is grown, mainly Malaysia and Indonesia.

RSPO has been criticised by green groups in recent years for failing to decouple palm oil certification from environmental and social problems, and in March the European Union ruled to ban palm oil imports for use as biodiesel citing concerns over deforestation. But in November last year RSPO introduced tougher rules to protect forests, peatlands and workers.

“It’s unfortunate that Selfridges has taken a stance from which it cannot have a positive impact, influence improvements in the sector, and indeed join other major retailers in their commitment to transparent, verifiable sustainability,” said RSPO’s chief executive, Datuk Darrel Webber, referring to the “deforestation and exploitation free” RSPO standard palm oil that is already available for companies to buy.

“We hope that Selfridges will make evidence publicly available that the commodities substituted for palm oil meet equally stringent sustainability standards,” said Webber, pointing at the sunflower, soybean and rapeseed oil that Selfridges has said it will now use instead.

He added: “Sustainability is a global challenge that requires all players to come to the table in the spirit of shared responsibility - it cannot be addressed by simply removing palm oil.”

The news emerges in the same week that a report from the World Wide Fund for Nature and the Zoological Society of London found that one in five RSPO members have failed to report their progress towards becoming 100 per cent certified, while companies that have pledged to source conflict-free palm oil are nowhere near meeting their sustainability targets. 

The report called on the RSPO to tighten requirements for companies to report accurate information so that the progress of palm oil companies, and the firms it supplies, can be more reliably assessed.

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