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Jan Lee headshot

Unilever Steps Up Its Ethical Origins Program for Certified Palm Oil

Words by Jan Lee

Unilever’s commitment to sustainability is no secret. Last year, we reported that the company, which has a broad portfolio ranging from cooking oil to personal care products had succeeded in completing a major goal when it came to the production of palm oil: it was now producing it from 100 percent sustainably sourced ingredients.

This year, the 113-year company is on track to accomplish another milestone. “We have long been convinced of the need to break the link between palm oil and climate change,” says Unilever on its website. “We recognise the need to be able to trace where our palm oil is grown and keep our supplies segregated during milling, transport and use. In order to do this, we have set a new target to source all our palm oil from certified, traceable sources by 2020.” Today, however, the company added an additional commitment - that all palm oil bought will be traceable to known sources by end of 2014. “Our progress has been made possible by the commitment and efforts of a number of our strategic suppliers,” says Marc Engel, Unilever’s chief procurement officer. “We will continue to engage with our suppliers, NGOs, governments, RSPO (the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil), end users and other industry stakeholders to develop collaborative solutions to halt deforestation, protect peatland, and to drive positive economic and social impact for people and local communities.” Unilever’s move toward sustainably-sourced ingredients is part of a global drive to improve the sourcing of palm oil, which is a major contributor to deforestation in Asia. More than 80 percent of the palm oil used in the world comes from Malaysia and Indonesia, where forests are often razed and burned to make way for plantations. Finding better, more sustainable ways to harvest this ingredient, which ranks as the most widely used oil in the world, says Green Century Equity Fund (Green Century) is essential. Green Century recently filed a resolution urging another palm oil producer, Kellogg Co., to improve its sustainability record in Southeast Asia, by “delivering on its commitments to protect threatened forests in Southeast Asia.” Green Century is calling on Kellogg's to clean up sourcing procedures that the investment company says indirectly contribute to illegal deforestation techniques in Southeast Asia. The resolution asks the company to report back to shareholders the amount of palm oil it sources that can be attributed to suppliers that don’t contribute to key environmental and human rights abuses, and to commit to annual updates of this disclosure. While worker safety and forest conservation are major reasons for developing a dependable tracing system for this commodity, they aren’t the only reasons, says Green Century. As Unilever has claimed, sustainable, traceable sourcing also has potential to help stop global warming, a by-product of the deforestation of large tracks of forestland, such as those that are being lost in Indonesia and Malaysia.  Green Century notes that according to an estimate by the World Bank, Indonesia is now considered to be one of the largest emitters of greenhouse gases on the planet, in part because of deforestation practices within its borders. Unilever’s announcement of its plan to step up its traceability goals coincides with efforts that were underway yesterday at the RSPO’s 11th annual conference in North Sumatra. Members from some 30 countries have stakes in the outcome of this conference, which is tasked with regulating the sustainable sourcing of palm oil. More than 600 delegates from around the world met in Medan yesterday to discuss and implement guidelines for sustainable sourcing of palm oil. And not all are optimistic about its future success. According to the Jakarta Post, although “most consumer product giants, such as Nestlé, Unilever and major environmental NGOs remain RSPO members, its effectiveness as the vanguard of sustainable palm oil is increasingly under scrutiny.” This may be one reason why Unilever is taking steps now to underscore its commitment to a transparent and sustainable supply chain, and to step up its efforts to improve traceable sourcing of its palm oil. According to the World Wildlife Fund, Unilever, which helped implement the RSPO in 2004, continues to invest heavily in its development and its mandate – and of course, to purchase sustainably sourced palm oil. “That is why we ranked Unilever amongst the top scorers in the industry in our Palm Oil Scorecard,” said WWF’s Market Transformation Initiative Director, Richard Holland. “We urge other companies along the palm oil value chain to follow the lead shown by Unilever.” Unilever logo courtesy of Unilever Image of palm grove courtesy of Craig
Jan Lee headshotJan Lee

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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