Deforestation-linked palm oil still finding its way into top consumer brands

A new report by Greenpeace finds that palm oil suppliers to the world’s largest brands have cleared more than 1,300 square kilometres of rainforest—an area the size of the city of Los Angeles—since the end of 2015.

Pledges by major brands to stop buying palm oil from companies known to destroy rainforests have failed to stop the clearance of a total area of forest the size of Los Angeles in just the last three years.

That’s the finding from a new report by Greenpeace, which sought to gauge the progress made by leading consumer brands and palm oil firms in making good on their promises to break the link between the palm oil they buy and the destruction of rainforests and other ills.

The report found that palm oil suppliers to these top brands had cleared more than 1,300 square kilometers (500 square miles) of rainforest in Southeast Asia since the end of 2015, despite a growing number of commitments by most major refiners, traders and end users of palm oil to stop doing business with deforesters and land grabbers.

The reason? The brands and their suppliers are not abiding by their own pledges.

“The answer is really simple,” Greenpeace Indonesia forest campaign head Kiki Taufik said. “Despite promising not to buy palm oil from rainforest destroyers, the world’s biggest brands are, in fact, still buying palm oil from companies that destroy rainforests.”

Greenpeace researchers found that 12 of the world’s largest brands — Colgate-Palmolive, General Mills, Hershey, Kellogg’s, Kraft Heinz, L’Oréal, Mars, Mondelez, Nestlé, PepsiCo, Reckitt Benckiser and Unilever — were still sourcing from at least 20 palm oil groups that actively cleared rainforests in Indonesia, Malaysia and Papua New Guinea.

The palm oil produced from these plantations winds up in some of the most well-known products on the market, including Kit Kat chocolate bars, Colgate toothpaste, Johnson’s baby lotion, Doritos tortilla chips, and Pop-Tarts pastries, among others.

“We’re consuming their products on a daily basis,” Greenpeace Indonesia senior forest campaigner Annisa Rahmawati said at the launch of the report in Jakarta. “So we are exposed [to their products] and indirectly participate in deforestation and human rights violations if these brands don’t uphold their commitments.”

In addition to deforestation, the report cited evidence of other problems linked to these industrial palm plantations, from labor exploitation and social conflicts, to unlicensed development and slash-and-burn land clearing, especially on carbon-rich peat soil.

With less than two years before their self-imposed 2020 deadlines — which in many cases have already been pushed back from earlier deadlines — the companies involved must act swiftly to transform the palm oil industry, activists say.

“There’s an extreme urgency here because we’re less than 500 days to 2020, and yet we haven’t seen the implementation of their [zero-deforestation] commitments,” Annisa said.

We’re consuming their products on a daily basis. So we are exposed [to their products] and indirectly participate in deforestation and human rights violations if these brands don’t uphold their commitments.

Annisa Rahmawati, senior forest campaigner, Greenpeace Indonesia

Still tainted

While all of the global brands cited in the report have committed to zero deforestation, many measure their progress in terms of the number of their suppliers who have published their own “No Deforestation, No Peat and No Exploitation (NDPE)” policies — rather than the number that have successfully implemented these policies.

And many of these polices are actually commitments to stop buying from deforesters at a future date — one that can be pushed back, again and again.

Meanwhile, these brands and their main suppliers, including global commodities traders such as Golden Agri-Resources, Musim Mas and Wilmar International, tend not to proactively monitor their entire supply chains in order to identify companies that are still involved in deforestation.

Instead, these brands and their traders tend to wait until NGOs identify deforestation or other policy breaches by suppliers. When this happens, brands and traders tend to treat them as isolated cases meriting “engagement” or “monitoring,” according to Greenpeace.

“They always say they are engaging their suppliers but they don’t say when this engagement will end,” Annisa said. “Meanwhile, their producers keep destroying Indonesia’s rainforests.”

A few days before the report came out, Kit Kat owner Nestlé announced it would start monitoring 100 per cent of its palm oil supply chain for deforestation using satellite imagery by December 2018, in a bid to meet its 2020 deadline of cleaning up its supply chain from deforestation.

As of 2017, only 58 per cent of the Swiss food giant’s global supply chain for palm oil was deforestation-free.

Nestlé said it would use Starling, a satellite-based service developed by Airbus and sustainability consultancy The Forest Trust (TFT), to monitor its supply chain 24/7, calling it “a game changer to achieve transparency in our supply chain.”

Richard George, a forest campaigner at Greenpeace UK, pointed out that it had taken Nestlé eight years since it made its zero-deforestation commitment back in 2010 to start monitoring its entire supply chain.

“Big brands like Nestlé have been promising to stop deforestation for palm oil for almost a decade,” he said. “For Nestlé to announce only now that it will start trying to monitor where its palm oil comes from is simply embarrassing.”

George called on Nestlé to go beyond simply monitoring its supply chain and stop buying palm oil from traders and producers associated with deforestation.

“Nestlé knows it has been buying palm oil from 23 of the dirtiest producers in Indonesia, much of it via Wilmar,” he said. “This is something it can change immediately. If Nestlé is serious about fixing its palm oil problem, it needs to drop the dirty trader Wilmar and instruct the companies that produce its palm oil to publish [land] concession maps that prove they aren’t destroying forests.”

Wilmar in the spotlight

According to the report, Wilmar, as the world’s largest refiner and trader of palm oil and the first to promise, in 2013, to stop deforesting, is still buying from 18 of the palm oil groups cited in the report.

Wiko Saputra, an economic policy researcher from the Indonesian environmental NGO Auriga, said the core problem with big palm oil traders like Wilmar was that their own plantations were unable to produce enough palm oil to meet their export demands.

“Their exports reach around 8 million tons, while their own plantations can only produce around 1.6 million tons,” Wiko said at the launch of the report. “Therefore, Wilmar can only supply 15 to 20 per cent of their exports and thus they have to buy from other suppliers. This is where the problem lies.”

In order to be certain it wasn’t buying palm oil linked to deforestation, Wilmar would have to monitor the supply chains of every mill and plantation — not to mention the middlemen who move between them — it sources. This, said Wiko, is very difficult to do.

“So how can they control other plantations owned by their suppliers?” Wiko said. “This is a classic problem in Indonesia.”

Wiko said Wilmar was able to control much of the palm oil exports from Indonesia because it owned much of the storage infrastructure at various ports throughout the country.

“They don’t have many plantations and mills, but they control ports because they have so many storage tanks,” he said. “When we visited ports like Dumai [in Riau province], Belawan and Kuala Tanjung [both in North Sumatra], we can see that Wilmar owned almost 75 per cent of the storage tanks there. That’s where they store their [crude palm oil]. As a result, many big producers are forced to sell through Wilmar.”

Wiko said this disparity needed to be addressed if the palm oil industry wanted to transform itself and stop deforestation.

“If this is not addressed, I don’t think they can meet the 2020 deadline of cleaning up their supply chains,” he said. “Even if they have 10 more years, it’s still not possible because there’s a structural problem.”

TFT, which works with Wilmar, has also called the implementation of the company’s NDPE policy into question, saying that recent progress had been slow. It said Wilmar had not proactively addressed the root causes for this lack of progress.

As a result, it challenged Wilmar’s membership with TFT and asked the company to recommit to its NDPE policy.

“In TFT’s view, without a significant acceleration of the implementation of their NDPE, in particular in Indonesia, and a major shift in public transparency and stakeholder engagement, Wilmar will not be able live up to the commitment it made back in 2013,” TFT said in a statement.

This story was published with permission from Mongabay.com. Read the full story.

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