The price of palm oil
Michael Bachelard journeys into the world of palm oil plantations in Aceh, where land is taken to grow the sought-after product, whatever the cost...
A survey of 14 companies that made "no deforestation" promises shows none of them can say with certainty there is no deforestation involved in their palm oil supply chain, and none has published a full list of suppliers.
Only one - Italian chocolate maker Ferrero - is able to trace nearly 100 per cent of its palm oil back to the plantation. Colgate-Palmolive, Johnson&Johnson and PepsiCo were declared the worst performers.
Colgate uses palm oil in soap, toothpaste, antiperspirant and deodorant products.
"Brands are not doing enough to stop the palm oil industry ransacking Indonesia's rainforests," said Annisa Rahmawati, Greenpeace Indonesia's forest campaigner.
"These companies must have a fully transparent supply chain and ensure they only buy palm oil from suppliers that are protecting our rainforests."
Palm oil is cheap, versatile and very stable, making it an attractive ingredient. But palm oil production - mostly in Indonesia and Malaysia - has been blamed for habitat loss for endangered species, pollution, social conflicts and human rights abuses.
A man fights a fire in South Sumatra, Indonesia. Land is being cleared for the production of pulp, paper and palm oil. Photo: Ulet Ifansasti
Greenpeace analysed each of the companies' responsible sourcing, transparency and industry reform efforts, and concluded Colgate-Palmolive, Johnson&Johnson and PepsiCo were "failing".
The three US multinationals were criticised for failing to disclose their suppliers and sub-suppliers, which prevents third parties from monitoring their activities.
It slammed personal care giant Colgate-Palmolive for not being able to trace any of its palm oil back to the plantation, despite the fact that more than half is traceable to the mill.
Half of all packaged products on supermarket shelves contain palm oil. Photo: Peter Braig
A Colgate-Palmolive spokeswoman said the company was proud of its goals and progress towards fighting deforestation, through its partnership with the Forest Trust and membership of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).
"We are targeting over 75 per cent certified mass-balance oils in 2016 and are committed to achieve our goals for a deforestation-free palm oil supply chain within four years," she said.
Greenpeace criticised both Colgate-Palmolive and snack food maker PepsiCo for relying heavily on the GreenPalm trading scheme, where companies can buy certificates to offset their use of uncertified palm oil without actually using certified oil and taking meaningful action.
Orangutan habitats are being wiped out because of palm oil production. Photo: Getty Images
"PepsiCo has no evidence that its palm oil is deforestation-free. It is almost entirely reliant on GreenPalm certificates and its traceability to mill is below its competitors," the report said.
"PepsiCo should immediately phase out GreenPalm and obtain independent verification that its suppliers are complying with its 'no deforestation' policy."
GreenPalm, which is endorsed by the RSPO, has rejected claims of inefficiency and ineffectiveness, saying it creates a critical mass of certified sustainable palm oil.
A PepsiCo spokeswoman said the company took the issue of deforestation and the sourcing of sustainable palm oil seriously.
"Our action plan reflects our enhanced efforts, including traceability to the mill level by 2016 and the sourcing of 100 per cent physically certified sustainable palm oil," she said.
Greenpeace accused Johnson&Johnson (which owns brands such as Neutrogena and Aveeno) of having a limited understanding of the risks in its supply chain.
"Its traceability to the mill is poor. Johnson & Johnson needs to accelerate its traceability programme and move beyond the RSPO to meet its 'no deforestation' commitment," the report said.
But it did acknowledge Johnson&Johnson had stopped working with a supplier because of non-compliance, and participated in efforts to achieve reform.
Johnson&Johnson did not answer Fairfax Media's questions.
Australians consume an average of about six kilograms of palm oil a year, according to a report commissioned by WWF and the Food and Grocery Council of Australia, but they may not be aware of it as palm oil is often called "vegetable oil" on ingredient labels.
Consumer and environmental groups, as well as the Greens, have been fighting for mandatory palm oil labelling, saying shoppers should have the ability to avoid it.
Choice's Tom Godfrey said there was a disincentive for companies to invest and label sustainable palm oil on their products.
"Food manufacturers that use sustainable palm oil won't label this on their product as it makes their product look worse in the eyes of consumers than products who contain palm oil but can label it as 'vegetable oil'," he said.
The Blewett Review of food labelling in 2011 concluded palm oil should be identified on ingredients lists. Food Standards Australia and New Zealand has undertaken a technical review and consumers affairs ministers have yet to make a decision.
Tony Gilding from Palm Oil Action, based in NSW, encouraged consumers to contact companies and ask whether a product contains palm oil, whether it is certified, and why it is not declared on the label.
"It's by those questions that companies will start telling us what we're eating. We know why they're not telling us. They're worried about a backlash," he said.
"There's also a great app called Palm Oil Investigations. You can take a product, scan it and it will tell you whether it has palm oil in it."
Greenpeace said overall Ferrero and Nestle were "strong" in their moves towards sustainable palm oil use.
It said Danone, General Mills, Ikea, Kellogg, Mars, Mondelez, Orkla, Procter & Gamble and Unilever were "decent". Colgate-Palmolive, Johnson&Johnson and PepsiCo were "failing".
Palm oil and its derivatives can appear under many names, including glycerin, sodium laureth sulfate and vegetable fat, according to WWF.