The Union of Concerned Scientists has released its 2nd annual palm oil report, assessing a broad spectrum of the food and personal care industries.
The Union for Concerned Scientists (UCS) has released its second annual Palm Oil Scorecard to assess how 30 companies that produce major brands for American consumers measure up on their commitments, or lack thereof, to sourcing deforestation-free palm oil. The companies range from the fast food and packaged foods industries to personal care products and store brands.
Companies producing packaged foods and personal care products did better overall than the fast food industry and store brands. In packaged foods, Nestlé takes the lead and Kraft lags in last place. Colgate-Palmolive and Henkel have both improved over the past year while Clorox-owned Burt’s Bees has an unimpressive score of 0 out of 100 when it comes to responsible sourcing. Safeway leads the store brands in first place, while Whole Foods is only marginally better than Walmart. In the fast food industry, Dunkin’ Donuts is in the lead, likely due to the company’s new detailed commitment to revamping its supply chain. All other fast food brands lag far behind, with DQ, Domino’s, and Wendy’s at the bottom. Starbucks scored lower than McDonalds.
The UCS concludes in its Executive Summary:
“All companies, even those with strong policies, still have a tremendous amount of work ahead to fulfill their palm oil commitments. Until companies actually implement their commitments and start making changes on the ground, critically important forests, wildlife, and local communities will remain at risk from expanding oil palm plantations.”
Why does it matter?
Palm oil is the cheapest and most prevalent vegetable oil and comprises approximately one-third of all vegetable oils produced globally. It is used for food, cosmetics, cleaning products, and, increasingly, biofuel. Palm oil can be found in approximately 50 percent of the items sold in a typical U.S. grocery store, which makes it very important to pay attention to where and how the oil is being produced.
The industry has a terrible reputation for environmental degradation, slashing and burning tropical rainforests to make room for new plantations, draining peatlands and releasing large amounts of carbon dioxide. According to the UCS, “Oil palm cultivation in Indonesia accounted for an estimated 2 to 9 percent of all tropical land use emissions from 2000 to 2010.”
Palm oil plantations decimate orangutan populations and threaten other endangered species such as tigers, rhinoceros, and elephants indigenous to Malaysia and Indonesia, the two countries that produce 85 percent of the world’s palm oil. Then there’s the effect on human populations in Asia, Africa, and Central America – land seized from indigenous inhabitants, forced labor, damage caused by fire and its resulting haze.
Many organizations such as the Rainforest Alliance, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), the WWF, and the Rainforest Action Network (RAN) believe that there are sustainable ways to source palm oil without devastating the environment with time-bound policies, third-party verification, and an insistence on total traceability back to the plantation source.
Personally, I prefer to avoid palm oil whenever I see it listed on an item, since it’s difficult to find deforestation-free-certified products where I live and I prioritize local ingredients over tropical imports whenever possible.
The more consumers who demand it of companies, however, the more likely the companies are to pay attention. You can join the call to action by submitting a letter through the Union for Concerned Scientists, available here.