“Resources aren’t. They become.” Steve Krecik, a palm oil expert for Rainforest Alliance, used this quote to describe the palm oil industry, which has been expanding rapidly since the late 1990s. Palm oil comprises more than one-third of the 144 billion tons of vegetable oil produced annually.
Palm oil has a remarkable ability for alleviating poverty, Krecik told me, which is why many developing tropical countries have embraced its production. Palm oil is used in 50 percent of the items we buy, from packaged food and cosmetics to household cleaners. It’s used for cooking and is gaining a reputation as a healthy fat here in North America. Consumers can’t get enough of palm oil these days.
It’s the environment, however, that pays the steep price for such rapid expansion. Vast tracts of rainforest have been destroyed in Malaysia and Indonesia, which currently produce 87 percent of the world’s palm oil. Indonesia has plans to double its $12-billion-a-year palm oil industry by 2020. That means a lot more rainforest will be slashed and burned in the process. Deforestation is happening in Africa and South/Central America because the world is hungry for palm oil.
The good news is that consumer demand for “deforestation-free” palm oil has led to the creation of certification bodies, primarily the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) in 2003, to provide products with better traceability. Unfortunately, many people have found the RSPO’s efforts to be inadequate, which is why the Rainforest Alliance got involved. As an organization with long experience in applying agricultural standards, and a member of the RSPO, the Rainforest Alliance has developed its own plan for certifying palm oil farms as sustainable and allowing them the use of their distinct green frog seal.
Last month I traveled to Honduras as a guest of the Rainforest Alliance to visit Hondupalma, the world’s first certified sustainable palm oil cooperative. There I learned a lot about what it means for a product to have Rainforest Alliance certification.
First, the Rainforest Alliance’s role in the palm oil industry seems to be more of a ‘farm consultant’ – a source of advice on better business practice – than a strict environmental watchdog. It is an organization whose focus is walking hand-in-hand with farmers and companies toward better production methods, rather than holding them accountable to strict standards that they would have to reach on their own.
Second, the Rainforest Alliance uses third-party consultants to audit and certify palm oil farms. Local partners develop ‘local interpretation guides’ to assess biodiversity, municipal laws, traditional land use, deforestation history, rare animal species, etc. in order to determine what needs to be protected. This excellent practice provides a personalized view of each farm.
Third, both the Rainforest Alliance and the RSPO require that no deforestation has occurred on any certified farm since November 2005. The Rainforest Alliance takes it a step further to ensure that all damage since November 1999 is mitigated through reforestation, ecological preserves, and biodiversity offsets.
Fourth, certified products don’t always contain 100% certified ingredients. Only 30% of a company’s product must be sustainable in order to attain certification. Producers are expected to increase sustainable content by 15% annually, but this is not strictly enforced. As Chris Wille, director of agriculture, explained: “Those numbers are targets. Companies aren’t punished for failing to meet those targets. The idea is long-lasting change."
Fifth, the Rainforest Alliance works with big corporations such as McDonalds, Walmart, Cargill, Unilever, and Johnson & Johnson. As a person whose shopping habits keep me away from corporate brands whenever possible, I admittedly have trouble linking the idea of sustainability to the names above, but I do see the importance of working with them. A 1% commitment from Walmart to be more sustainable has a far bigger global impact than selling one farmer’s palm oil.
Is it worth boycotting palm oil? Steve Krecik doesn’t think so. “That removes your consumer leverage.” He explains that the industry is still so huge and mostly unregulated (only 12% is certified by the RSPO, much less by Rainforest Alliance) that opting to buy certified palm oil makes an important statement. Nonetheless, I’ll continue to avoid palm oil, mostly because it’s difficult to find Rainforest Alliance-certified products where I live, and because I prioritize local products over tropical imports whenever possible.
When palm oil cannot be avoided, it’s good to know that there are ethical, sustainable options out there, thanks to the Rainforest Alliance’s work. Consumer awareness and demand has gotten us this far, but it can’t stop here. If you must buy a product that contains palm oil, ensure that it is Rainforest Alliance-certified. If it isn’t, tell companies what you want.