LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A third of the top 30 global retailers of packaged food, fast food and personal care goods that use palm oil in their products have made no commitment to sourcing it sustainably, while only a fifth have made adequate promises, according to a scorecard issued by a U.S-based alliance of scientists and citizens.
The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) looked at whether companies have agreed to buy palm oil that does not contribute to deforestation or the destruction of peatlands, whether they are planning to trace their palm oil to plantation level and check greenhouse gas emissions, and how transparent they plan to be about their progress and verification processes. A final criteria was how much green palm oil they are already using.
Of the 30, 11 companies were judged to have made no commitments at all.
“Multinational companies really hold the world’s tropical forests in their hands,” Calen May-Tobin, lead analyst for UCS’s Tropical Forest and Climate Initiative, said in a statement. “If these companies demand deforestation-free, peat-free palm oil, the producers on the ground would be forced to change their palm oil practices.”
The fast food sector scored the worst by far. Only two fast food companies - McDonald’s and Subway - had strong enough commitments to receive any points, even though their commitments are "vague and outdated".
Nearly all the packaged food companies, except Kraft Foods, have commitments, and some were high achievers, but "most have more work to do", the UCS said.
Nestlé, Unilever and Mondelēz were judged to have made "full commitments". Kellogg - which announced fresh promises after the scorecard was put together - is also included in the six companies the UCS said have pledged to purchase palm oil that is deforestation-free, peat-free, and can be traced in a transparent way.
The other two are L’Oréal and Reckitt Benckiser, which are both personal care companies. That sector, as a whole, gained mixed scores because many rely on certification by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), a standards body made up of companies and green groups, to meet their commitments.
"This (RSPO) certification is an improvement over status quo production methods, but is not strong enough to protect all forests and peatlands," the UCS said.
Other companies judged to have made no commitments include Starbucks, Domino's, Estée Lauder, Clorox, Burger King, CKE Restaurants, Dairy Queen, Dunkin' Brands, Wendy's, and Yum! Brands, the UCS said.
May-Tobin told Thomson Reuters Foundation the relatively good progress in the packaged food sector was down to pressure from both their customers and non-governmental organisations.
"It's a reflection of the power that consumers have, and it gives me hope for movement in the other two sectors," he said.
In just the past four months, there has been "amazing momentum", May-Tobin noted. Wilmar International, the world's biggest palm oil trader, fired the starting gun in December, promising the palm oil it sells will not cause any additional loss of rainforests or peatland by 2015. Since then L'Oréal, Kellogg, Delhaize and other retailers have also announced fresh pledges, while a few companies had made them earlier.
"The front runners have set the bar, and hopefully other companies are getting a little nervous and don't want to be left behind," May-Tobin said.
The scorecard report describes how growing demand for palm oil, as a cheap and plentiful vegetable oil, has led to an expansion in the amount of land used to produce it at the expense of carbon-rich tropical forests and peatlands, the indigenous and forest peoples that rely on them, endangered animal species, and the planet’s climate.
But it says that a new industry standard that addresses these issues is emerging. "With select companies leading the way, it is time for all businesses using palm oil to take full responsibility for combating the problems associated with its production," it concludes.
Meanwhile, environmental groups like Greenpeace are upping the pressure on some big household names. This week, it released a spoof video of Procter & Gamble’s "Thank You, Mom" commercial showing how deforestation for palm oil is orphaning orangutans in Indonesia.
Greenpeace USA activists also took action at P&G's global headquarters in Ohio by hanging an artificial "tiger" from a zipwire between the company’s two iconic buildings.
P&G scores “little commitment,” in the UCS ratings.
“P&G is buying palm oil linked to rainforest destruction to make every day products like Head & Shoulders (shampoo). Rainforest destruction is endangering species like the Sumatran tiger and orangutan," said Joao Talocchi, a Greenpeace USA forest campaigner, calling on P&G to commit to a "no deforestation” policy right away.