Last summer, thousands of fires raged across Indonesia. Visible from space, they destroyed forests, emitted more greenhouse gases than the entire U.S. economy, and left rhinos, tigers, and elephants without homes. A recent study estimates that the ensuing haze contributed to more than 100,000 deaths across Indonesia and neighboring countries Malaysia and Singapore.
What could possibly drive that much destruction? In part, the demand for processed food and personal care products.
Many of the fires cleared land for plantations that produce palm oil, the world’s most popular vegetable oil. Palm oil is a key ingredient in about half of the processed and packaged foods in our supermarkets, from cookies and instant noodles to lipstick and soap.
When palm oil is produced unsustainably, wildlife, natural habitats, and our climate can suffer detrimental consequences. However, when it is produced in ways that protect the environment, palm oil production can help meet demand for edible oil more efficiently than other plants.
World Wildlife Fund has been working with many of the world’s largest palm oil buyers to source palm oil from verified sustainable sources. According to our 2016 Palm Oil Buyers Scorecard, more companies are buying and using certified sustainable palm oil than ever before. At the same time, however, there is still considerable progress left to make.
Globally, our scorecard examined 137 food service providers, supermarket chains, and consumer brands around the world—and 30 in the US—to see how much certified sustainable palm oil they were using. Thirteen of the 30 reported that 100 percent of their supply was certified by the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil. There’s one important catch, though: most of these companies rely heavily on GreenPalm certificates to make the grade. Producers sell these certificates to subsidize the sustainable production of palm oil. Companies buying them can report that volume covered by certificates as sustainable. This is a step companies can take immediately before shifting their sourcing practices, which may take years to complete. That said, companies have had years to shift their purchasing, so it is time for them to move away from certificates and towards physical supply. Only three US companies—Mars, Hershey, and WhiteWave Foods—are using 100 percent certified physical supply.
Continuous improvement is a critical component of the sustainability movement. As a result, while RSPO provides the palm oil industry with a solid foundation to shift its practices, it must continue to strengthen its standards. That’s why WWF is working as part of the Palm Oil Innovation Group to better protect forests and peatlands and their wildlife, require reporting of greenhouse gas emissions associated with palm oil production, and uphold the rights and improving livelihoods for local communities and workers. This work informed RSPO Next, a set of more robust standards that WWF is urging producers, traders, and buyers to adopt.
Yet even companies that adopt stronger RSPO standards will still face hurdles erected by certain government policies and practices. In Indonesia, for example, the government has objected to the private sector’s push for more sustainable production practices. As Reuters reported last October, Indonesia's chief natural resources minister told his parliament: “We are the biggest palm oil producer. Why (should) the consumers from the developed countries set the standard for us as they want?"
Even national parks that are ostensibly protected from exploitation are being razed for timber, rubber, and palm oil. This leaves global palm oil buyers with three options: allow illegally produced palm oil into their supply chains, demand certified sustainable palm oil, or stop sourcing palm oil altogether. This latter option may sound sensible, but it will only put pressure on other ecosystems threatened by the expansion of oil crops, such as soy farms encroaching onto the grasslands of Latin America.
The best option is for buyers to purchase some of the more than 11 million metric tons of palm oil that were certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil last year. Indeed, there is enough to satisfy demand, as only half of certified sustainable palm oil was sold as such last year. The rest was sold as conventional palm oil, offering its growers no premium or incentive to maintain environmentally responsible practices.
With so much supply, there is no excuse for any company to ignore the issue. And with so much at stake— precious forests, breathable air, endangered wildlife, a stable climate—there’s no room for governments to stand in the way.