Campaigners are celebrating new palm oil labelling laws, but will it help the ethical shopper?
On 13th December the new EU regulation 1169/2011 will require manufacturers to state which vegetable oils have been used in their products. Anti-palm oil campaigners are gearing up to call for a global boycott, but as the label won’t state whether that palm oil was sustainably-sourced or not, will it be of any use to the ethical shopper?
Boycotts can change how companies do business. Nike stopped using sweatshops and Zara stopped selling fur products as a result of consumer action. Given the amount of choice we have in the supermarket, if a brand is up to no good, we can simply buy from their competition instead.
In the EU, where palm oil is found in up to half the products on the shelves, the new label will help shoppers identify which products contain palm oil, but in many parts of the world, palm oil doesn’t come processed into a product, so there is no brand to target. Indian consumers buy most of their palm oil ‘loose’ for cooking.
The wide range of products which contain palm oil will also mean that the time needed to check every packet of biscuits until we find one which doesn’t contain palm oil will be a challenge for even the most committed ethical consumer. To expect a global, mass boycott to materialise would seem optimistic.
For the ethical consumer, there is also the rather troubling fact that orangutans are not the only stakeholders. The threat palm oil production poses to wildlife is well-known, but while most anti-palm oil campaigns focus on multinational plantation companies, 40% of plantations in Malaysia and Indonesia are farmed by smallholders. 1.8 million Malaysians depend on palm oil cultivation for their livelihoods. An outright boycott of palm oil by ethical shoppers would come with some highly unethical side-effects for those families.
A sustainable palm oil label already exists, albeit a voluntary one. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), an organisation of NGOs, growers, and manufacturers, was set up in 2004 to address concerns about palm oil production. In order for RSPO members’ products to carry the ‘RSPO-certified’ label, they must adhere to strict criteria. The RSPO is not without its critics, but there is a big difference between their labelling standards and the EU’s one-size-fits-all approach.
The principal complaint about palm oil is that as demand increases, more rainforest will be cut down to make way for agricultural land. But if our supermarkets did become palm oil-free zones, whichever crop was chosen to replace palm oil would mean, ironically, more deforestation not less. Oil palms can produce four tonnes of oil per hectare per year. Rapeseed requires six hectares to produce the same volume. Sunflower needs eight hectares; soybean, nine.
Different oils also have different properties. “Palm kernel oil is a lauric oil,” says Melissa Yeoh, Sustainable Palm Oil Manager at WWF Malaysia. “The only other lauric oil is coconut oil and that is only grown in the Philippines.” But coconut oil poses the same risk of increased deforestation. “It requires far more land to produce the same amount of oil. There isn’t a Roundtable on Sustainable Coconut Oil, but if production was increased to the same quantities, there would have to be.”
Another obstacle to a global boycott is that while western NGOs encourage consumers to put pressure on western companies, the two largest and fastest growing markets for palm oil are China and India. This means ASEAN exporters can increasingly look closer to home for customers. Last year the EU accounted for 14% of global palm oil consumption. India alone buys 20% of output, China a further 16%. Yeoh says that one of WWF’s most pressing objectives is to encourage Chinese and Indian buyers to join the RSPO.
Companies including Unilever, P&G, Nestle and L’Oreal have all made commitments to source sustainable palm oil for their products. Critics argue that companies don’t spend money on green initiatives unless they know they’re going to see a return on investment. If that’s true, it’s unlikely the threat of a boycott is going to offer companies any incentive to examine their supply chains. When the Australian government attempted to introduce mandatory labelling of palm oil, Unilever, an RSPO member, argued that it would “mislead consumers by creating the impression that all palm oil, regardless of how it is produced, is bad and to be avoided.”
Unilever is the largest single buyer of palm oil, hoovering up 1.5 million tonnes a year (3% of global supply). It states that all of its palm oil will be “traceable to known sources” by the end of 2014. The pressure a multinational company like Unilever can exert upon its suppliers is considerable, and the RSPO (and its offshoot the Palm Oil Innovation Group) are focusing their energies on persuading more large buyers to adopt RSPO criteria for their supply chains. The goal is that non-RSPO buyers (especially those which are less picky about sustainability) will eventually have no choice but to buy their palm oil from these same sustainable sources.
When the New Zealand government decided against mandatory palm oil labelling it was because, according to the Minister of Consumer Affairs, the label “would not provide sufficient information to allow consumers to choose between sustainably and non-sustainably produced palm oil.”
Information on palm oil is not easy to find. One statistic which many websites mention is that three hundred football pitches-worth of forest is being hacked down every hour. The origins of that statistic are lost in the internet, but one environmentalist found that the number quoted ranged from 0.5 football pitches an hour to over 600.
Whatever the actual figure, some campaigners then extrapolate and state that all the rainforest will therefore be lost, but Malaysia has laws dictating how much land can be used for agriculture and they are rapidly approaching that limit (which is one reason why plantation companies are exploring West Africa and South America). That’s not to say a little gerrymandering doesn’t take place, but Malaysia has far stricter and better enforced laws regarding land use than Indonesia, and it gets understandably upset when the headlines are all about forest fires in Sumatra, but the calls for a boycott are global.
The Fairtrade label demonstrates that consumers take notice of labels they trust and understand. A similar label enabling the consumer to choose products containing ‘sustainable palm oil’ would have a far wider impact than just the tea and coffee aisle. Palm oil demand is expected to reach 68 million tonnes by 2020 (from 52 million tonnes in 2012), and an effective boycott is highly unlikely to materialise. If the new labelling regulation is going to be of any use to the ethical shopper, the label will have to state how the oil was produced.
Twenty years ago consumers were very concerned about dolphins getting caught in tuna nets. The resulting ‘Dolphin-friendly’ label told consumers exactly what they needed to know. An ‘Orangutan-friendly’ label would tell the consumer that the product had been produced without risk to rainforest, wildlife or the environment, and that there were standards the company had to meet in order to use that label.
Simply stating that a product ‘Contains palm oil’ is of as much use to the consumer as trying to save dolphins by stating that the can of tuna ‘Contains tuna’.
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