Slow Sales Of Sustainable Palm Oil Threaten Tropical Forests; WWF To Grade Palm Oil Buyers

WASHINGTON, DC, May 12, 2009 – New figures released by World Wildlife Fund (WWF) today show that only 1 percent of the sustainable palm oil available on the market has been bought, raising concerns that one of the major solutions to halting deforestation of tropical forests is not catching on fast enough.  Rapid increases in the production of palm oil, which is found in everything from cosmetics to ice cream to chocolate bars, has caused extensive land clearing in places like Borneo and Sumatra, resulting in loss of habitat for endangered species like tigers and orangutans and contributing to climate change.

Palm oil use has doubled over the last four years in the U.S., mostly in response to rising concerns about trans fats. WWF helped set up the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) as an international body for the industry to develop sustainability standards.  Certified sustainable palm oil, available since November 2008, provides assurance that valuable tropical forests have not been cleared and that environmental and social safeguards have been met during production. Yet further production will hinge on manufacturers and retailers committing to buy what’s available. 

In a bid to speed up the “sluggish performance,” WWF will assess the world’s major users of palm oil over the next six months and publish a Palm Oil Buyer’s Scorecard highlighting whether or not companies have supported sustainable palm oil and fulfilled their commitments to purchase it.

“So far, around 1.3 million tons of certified sustainable palm oil have been produced, but less than 15,000 tons have been sold,” said David McLaughlin, vice president of agriculture for WWF. “This sluggish demand from palm oil buyers, such as supermarkets, food and cosmetic manufacturers, could undermine the success of sustainability efforts and threatens the remaining natural tropical forests of Southeast Asia, as well as other forests where oil palm is set to expand, such as the Amazon.”

“The tropical forests of Borneo and Sumatra are being cleared at such a rapid pace that the carbon emissions from this deforestation are greater than the industrial emissions of some developed countries,” said Ginny Ng, WWF senior program officer for Borneo and Sumatra. “The orangutans, elephants, tigers and rhinos on these islands don’t stand a chance of survival if their forests aren’t protected. Creating a demand for sustainably grown palm oil is essential to their survival.”

WWF asks all companies buying palm oil to make public commitments that they will use 100 percent certified sustainable palm oil by 2015; to make public their plans with deadlines to achieve this goal; and to begin purchasing certified sustainable palm oil immediately. 

The Palm Oil Buyer’s Scorecard will rank the commitments and actions of major global retailers, manufacturers and traders that buy palm oil.  Companies will be scored on a variety of criteria relating to their commitments to, and actions on, sustainable palm oil.  The scores are meant to help consumers evaluate the performance of these companies and encourage the companies themselves to better support the use of certified sustainable palm oil. 

Learn more about WWF’s work to conserve Borneo and Sumatra


1. As a founding member of the RSPO, WWF has worked since 2002 with the palm oil industry to ensure that the RSPO standards contain robust social and environmental criteria, including a prohibition on the conversion of valuable forests. The RSPO brings together oil palm growers, oil processors, food companies, retailers, NGOs and investors to help ensure that no rainforest areas are sacrificed for new palm oil plantations, that all plantations minimize their environmental impacts and that basic rights of local peoples and plantation workers are fully respected. 

2. The RSPO began in 2002 as an informal cooperation on production and usage of sustainable palm oil among Aarhus United UK Ltd, Golden Hope Plantations Berhad, Migros, Malaysian Palm Oil Association, Sainsbury’s and Unilever together with WWF. These organizations held the first Roundtable meeting in August 2003 in Kuala Lumpur in order to prepare the foundation for the organizational and governance structure that resulted in the formation of the RSPO. Since then the RSPO has grown to include more than 300 members between them accounting for more than 35% of global palm oil production.

3. The oil palm tree originated in West Africa but it has been planted successfully in many tropical regions including the world’s largest exporters of palm oil, Indonesia and Malaysia. Over 43 million tons of palm oil are produced worldwide and comprise a major food source all over the world. Palm oil is used in a wide variety of foods including margarine, cooking oil, chips, cakes, biscuits and pastries. Palm oil derivatives are also found in cosmetics, soaps, shampoos and detergents. Sales in Europe have grown recently due to palm oil being an effective substitute for partially hydrogenated soft oils such as those produced from soy oil, rapeseed and sunflower thereby eliminating trans-fatty acids from many products.

4. WWF recognizes that palm oil is a basic foodstuff with high consumer demand. Europe imports 2.7 million tons of vegetable oil annually for food and soaps, making it the third biggest market for palm oil in the world, after India and China.  In addition, palm oil is increasingly used to replace fossil fuels in the transport and energy sectors of (mainly) developed countries. Taking into account the growing demand for palm oil for bioenergy as well as traditional uses, the FAO estimates that palm oil production will double between 1999/2001 and 2030.

5. Despite having the highest yield per hectare of any oil or oilseed crop, it is recognized that there are environmental pressures on its expansion to eco-sensitive areas, particularly as oil palm can only be cultivated in tropical areas of  Asia, Africa and America.  Oil palm plantations have often imposed environmental and social costs due to indiscriminate forest clearing, loss of habitat important to threatened and endangered species such as orangutan, elephants and tigers, uncontrolled burning with related haze, and disregard for the rights and interests of local communities.