- The Rainforest Action Network, an environmental group based in San Francisco, says that Nestlé, Mars and Hershey have all broken their commitments to quit using palm oil sourced from rainforests in their products, according to The Guardian.
The group charged that the major candy and snack manufacturers have deceived consumers by promising to clean up their supply chains, but these promises have been delayed, revised or watered down for too long.
Nestlé first pledged in 2010 to source all of its palm oil by 2013 from places that were never natural forests. It still hasn't met that goal, but a spokesperson told The Guardian they can trace two-thirds of it back to plantations and 90% of it to mills. In 2014, Mars pledged to remove the problematic palm oil from its supply chain by 2015 and still has not — 40% can be traced back to plantations, and 97% can be traced to mills. Hershey made a similar pledge in 2014, but plantation sourcing last year was 14%, and the company deferred its traceability campaign to 2020.
Palm oil is the world’s most widely used vegetable oil and offers big advantages for food manufacturers. Not only is it cheaper than other oils, it also has a long shelf life and processing benefits such as stability at high temperatures and solidity at room temperature. As a result, it has become a popular alternative to partially hydrogenated oils. Managed well, it also is much more land-efficient than other vegetable oils, yielding 10 times as much oil per hectare as soybeans, and far outstripping yields from sunflower and rapeseed.
RAN is especially concerned about the Indonesian island of Sumatra, where the rainforest home of orangutans, rhinos, clouded leopards and sun bears is disappearing because of what the group says are illegal palm oil plantations. According to RAN, Nestlé, Mars and Hershey all source palm oil from this area through complex supply chains, which sometimes involve commodity traders dealing with suppliers who illegally log there.
In 2014, the United Nations pledged to cut all deforestation in half by 2020, and completely end it by 2030. Many CPG companies followed this pledge with their own policies on palm oil sourcing. Palm oil production in Malaysia and Indonesia is controversial because some companies engage in widespread deforestation and burn peatland areas in order to plant palm oil trees. The United Nations says palm oil plantations are a major source of environmental degradation and biodiversity loss in Southeast Asia.
There are alternatives to using palm oil, although some of them are more expensive. But some are much more sustainable. Algae produces about 70,000 pounds of oil per acre, for example, compared to palm oil’s 4,465 pounds per acre. For comparison, olives produce about 910 pounds per acre, and soybeans produce just 335.
Confectionery and snacks manufacturers all seem committed to stick with the ingredient. However, some admit that ensuring sustainability is more difficult than they initially predicted.
"While we remain deeply committed to pushing all stakeholders to accelerate traceability and bring full transparency to this supply chain along with our supplier partners, we realized it would take more time to achieve this goal than originally anticipated," Jeff Beckman, Hershey’s communications director, told The Guardian.
It is a daunting challenge, but some companies have already achieved their sourcing goal. Mondelez announced it met its benchmark of using palm oil that was 100% certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil — an international not-for-profit group dedicated to ensuring the ingredient comes from good sources — in 2013. The snacks and cookie manufacturer also has taken a hard line against partnering with palm oil suppliers who use deforestation practices.
RAN isn't the only group that has kept a close eye on who's keeping their promises to make palm oil use more sustainable. Last year, Greenpeace put out a scorecard showing which companies were making progress toward their goals. The only two that were rated "on track" were Nestlé and Ferrero.
And more sustainability may be on the way. Last year, several food companies cut ties with IOI Loders Croklaan, a Malaysia-based palm oil manufacturer whose anti-deforestation policies were not considered sufficient. In September, New York-based Bunge — an ingredients and oils giant — announced it will buy a 70% stake in the company. In its announcement about the purchase, Bunge pledged more sustainability and traceability measures were coming.
It's unlikely that RAN and similar groups will stop pressuring food companies to quit using palm oil from threatened habitats such as the region on Sumatra. The question for manufacturers is whether it's worth risking bad publicity to keep sourcing palm oil from there and other conflict areas when there are alternatives. Ultimately, it's up to consumers, who may care whether their food contains potentially problematic palm oil.