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We need to talk about palm oil…

by Anna Turrell
palm oil seeds

Our Head of Sustainability for Nestlé UK & Ireland, Anna Turrell, writes for on the need for faster change and a constructive conversation around the issue of sustainable palm oil.

In my role, I spend a lot of my time looking at how we source our ingredients, including palm oil, and how we can help to drive improvements in the way that these ingredients are produced. It’s something that’s very important to me, personally, so, when I see things like Greenpeace’s recently launched animation ‘Rang-Tan’, it captures well the frustration that I share with Greenpeace, Emma Thompson, and numerous concerned consumers. I am frustrated that we are not seeing quicker progress in addressing deforestation and biodiversity loss, as well as other critical issues such as human rights, and ultimately moving towards achieving a sustainable palm oil industry.

‘Rang-Tan’ tells the story of a young orang-utan forced from her rainforest home to make way for palm oil production. It’s a sad but familiar story about the very real biodiversity and habitat loss created when companies clear forested land to make way for oil palm plantations. There are ways to stop this from happening, but they require strong and collective action from manufacturers and retailers, producers and traders, governments and civil society. Everyone has to step up.

It's not that nothing is happening, it is, it’s just not happening fast enough or coherently enough to generate the momentum for the change needed. This is in large part due to the highly complex and dynamic nature of palm oil supply chains, which are constantly moving and evolving. There are the variable market demands of producers and traders in different countries, conflicting government regulations and regulatory enforcement, and changing consumers and public interests to account for.

Palm oil is an important vegetable oil, used to make everything from chocolate to shampoo and margarine. We need to use vegetable oils to make these products, but currently other vegetable oils such as soybean, rapeseed and coconut present challenges around affordability, acceptability, and sustainability. The alternatives aren’t necessarily better in terms of environmental and social impact, and that makes things tricky.

Greenpeace and other campaigning organisations such as the Rainforest Action Network and Sum of Us are right. We need to stop bad and irresponsible practices from happening within the palm oil industry, and it needs to happen now. We are losing the battle on critical issues such as deforestation. Making the palm oil industry more responsible and ultimately sustainable isn’t happening quickly enough, and this is really frustrating for those individuals and organisations working within it and trying to drive this change. So how can we make palm oil more sustainable and less ‘dirty’?

We need the governments of palm oil producing countries to step up and enforce effective regulation of all industry players, from big multinational palm oil producers and the companies who buy it, to small and independent plantations and mills. All companies, no matter how large or small, should be held to account for their actions. The efforts of individual organisations will be far less effective without the intervention and support of the governments involved.

We need industry bodies and certification schemes to be stronger, particularly in critical areas such as enforcing no deforestation, peatland development or exploitation (NDPE). The current revision of the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) Principles & Criteria standard needs to focus on a strengthening of these areas.

We need to achieve transparency all along the supply chain, in order to ensure the accountability of those within it. Companies have to focus more on this. Supply chain traceability is something that we’ve been working on for 8 years alongside our responsible sourcing activities, but we still have more work to do. Without knowing where the palm oil you’re buying comes from, how can you be sure that it’s being produced in a sustainable way? The answer is that you can’t. By focusing on traceability in the supply chain, coupled with direct engagement on the ground with suppliers and supply chain actors, companies are better placed to help positively transform the supply chain. Because of the complex and interconnected nature of supply, we need all companies to start doing this.

As a society, we need to have more engaged and informed conversations on palm oil. It’s easy to say ‘get rid of it’, but palm oil is the most widely used vegetable oil in the world, and due to the high yields relative to other oils, it has the potential to put the least pressure on land if sustainable landscape management is applied. We know that alternative vegetable fats aren’t without their own challenges, so what should we do? Until there are viable and scalable alternatives in place, perhaps it’s better to focus on improving and strengthening the existing palm oil supply chain by targeting immediate action against the most critical issues such as stopping deforestation. In order to do this, we have to put the politics aside and come together to take action, as part of a shared responsibility to our planet and the biodiversity that lives within it.

We need to start asking and answering the right questions, collectively and transparently, not behind closed boardroom doors. We should be exploring where and how palm oil can grow responsibly and sustainably. We should be identifying clear and immediate pathways for action so that we can genuinely protect forests, and not just move deforestation out of our own supply chains and into the darkness. We should be formalising ways to ensure the workers in palm oil supply chains are treated with the dignity and respect they deserve. These are the questions we should be asking of governments and of companies, including Nestlé, if we are to realise the changes we need to see.