Palm oil problem continues to plague big candy-makers

crude palm pulp oil
© K Martinko

Hershey's, Nestle and Mars have not kept their promises when it comes to sourcing conflict-free palm oil.

Tomorrow is Halloween, which means that millions of people across North America are stocking up on candy and chocolate bars to hand out to excited trick-or-treaters. These treats may be delicious to eat, but they come at an environmental cost -- the destruction of tropical rainforests for palm oil production, a key ingredient in confectionery and most processed foods. In fact, as Rainforest Action Network (RAN) points out, palm oil is so ubiquitous that you can likely find it in every room of your house.

Companies like Hershey's, Mars, and Nestle are aware of the ecological impact of their sweets, and have made various pledges over the years to stop using 'conflict palm oil'. It is called this because of the way in which plantation expansion destroys the habitats of rare species -- Sumatran tigers, orangutans, clouded leopards, rhinos, sun bears, and elephants.

Leuser, Indonesia© RAN -- Rainforest that's been clearcut to make way for palm oil plantations in Leuser region of Indonesia

But these promises are hollow, according to RAN. Despite saying they will clean up their supply chains, all three companies have failed to deliver. The Guardian cites Laurel Sutherlin, a spokesperson for RAN:

"For too many years, Nestlé, Mars and Hershey have cherry-picked their [palm oil] targets and then moved the goalposts when they don’t achieve them. There’s just no further room for error to prevent the extinction of tigers, orangutans and elephants."

In 2010 Nestle promised to end deforestation in its supply chain by 2015; then it upgraded to a pledge of "no sourcing from areas converted from natural forests" by 2013. As of July this year, however, only 45 percent of palm oil in Nestle products could be traced to its plantation of origin.

Hershey's promised to trace all palm oil back to its plantation by 2016, but that year its plantation-level sourcing dropped to 14 percent from 27 percent, and the commitment was deferred till 2024.

Mars said it would cut out all conflict palm oil by 2015, but campaigners say this hasn't happened. The company hasn't said anything more.

RAN's campaign director, Gemma Tillack, believes these companies never actually cared about cleaning up their act. She told The Guardian:

"It is our view that the brands have deceived consumers by continually claiming to be tackling deforestation when they have not executed the actions required to achieve a moratorium on the forest front lines of their global supply chains."

While this is shameful corporate behavior, much of the burden of responsibility lies also with the shopper. It is only by consistently demanding higher production standards and transparent palm oil sourcing -- and demonstrating these values in the form of what we choose to buy, a.k.a. voting with one's dollars -- that companies will make this happen.

You can do it this Halloween by seeking palm oil-free chocolate. A number of smaller-scale, organic, and fair-trade chocolate companies offer this option, but you're unlikely to find it with major brands. Learn to decipher whether or not an item contains palm oil with this list: 50 sneaky names for palm oil. If you see any of these on an ingredients label, take a few minutes for action. Call the company about their palm oil policy and whether they source from sustainable enterprises.

If you can't get away from the palm oil, look for certification logos, such as Rainforest Alliance (read more about its certification program in Honduras) and RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil). While there is some contention surrounding the effectiveness of RSPO certification, it's still better than none at all.

Palm oil problem continues to plague big candy-makers
Hershey's, Nestle and Mars have not kept their promises when it comes to sourcing conflict-free palm oil.

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