Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.


The best of solutions journalism in the sustainability space, published monthly.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

Alexis Petru headshot

Kellogg's Pledges to Track Palm Oil Through Its Supply Chain

By Alexis Petru

When you’re snacking on Pringles or Pop-Tarts, you don’t want to be contributing to the destruction of orangutans’ homes.

That’s why Kellogg's, maker of such iconic snack and breakfast foods, recently announced a new commitment to only purchasing palm oil that can be traced back to suppliers certified to protect forests, peat lands and human rights by the end of 2015.

"As a socially responsible company, traceable, transparent sourcing of palm oil is important to us, and we are collaborating with our suppliers to make sure the palm oil we use is not associated with deforestation, climate change or the violation of human rights," Kellogg’s Chief Sustainability Officer Diane Holdorf said in a press release.

Made from the fruit of oil palm trees, the popular vegetable oil is used in a host of products including food, soap, cosmetics and biofuels. Nearly half of all packaged goods contain palm oil, according to Green Century Capital Management, an investment firm that manages environmentally responsible mutual funds.Palm oil has many benefits: It needs less than half the land required by other vegetable oils to produce the same amount of oil and maintains its properties when cooked at high temperatures.

But palm oil has an environmental and social downside: Tropical forests are cleared to set up palm oil plantations, accelerating climate change and destroying the habitat of endangered animals like orangutans. Local community members are denied previous access to the forest and its resources, and forest inhabitants are displaced from their homes. In addition, many palm oil plantations do not employ fair labor practices and subject employees to unsafe working conditions.

Kellogg's began using mass balance palm oil – a mixture of oil certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) and non-certified oil – in Europe in 2012 and in the United States this year.

But the breakfast and snack foods giant decided to strengthen its policies on palm oil after Green Century Capital Management, which owns less than 1 percent of Kellogg's stock in its Green Century Equity Fund, filed a shareholder proposal asking Kellogg's to ensure that the palm oil it purchases cannot be linked to illegal deforestation.

Kellogg's had come under fire from environmental groups last year when it launched a joint venture with Wilmar, the world’s largest palm oil trader that had been widely criticized for its contribution to deforestation. Green Century encouraged Wilmar to adopt a similar policy eliminating deforestation from its supply chain late last year.

As part of its new commitment, Kellogg's will require that by Dec. 31, 2015, all its suppliers be able to trace palm oil back to plantations that can be independently verified as compliant with the company’s principles for protecting forests, peat lands and communities, as well as meet the standards for RSPO certification.

The Battle Creek, Mich.-based company also pledges to participate as a member of the RSPO and support the Consumer Goods Forum’s goal to achieve zero net deforestation by 2020.

Will Kellogg’s new policy preserve forests, or is it just PR?

Environmental groups like Greenpeace have criticized the RSPO’s certification program, citing the palm oil’s industry powerful influence over the organization and the certification program’s lack of supply chain traceability.

But Kellogg’s new commitment goes beyond RSPO’s controversial standards, addressing many of the concerns environmentalists have with RSPO’s program: independently verifying plantations and tracking the oil from supplier to processor to grower. Environmental watchdogs will have to monitor the policy’s implementation, but clearly Kellogg's is making a step in the right direction by adopting more rigorous rules than RSPO.

Green Century, for one, is satisfied with Kellogg’s new policy, withdrawing its shareholder proposal in response to Friday’s announcement and saying the company’s commitment is one of the strongest in the industry.

“Kellogg’s aggressive timeline for ensuring all palm oil purchases can be traced back to deforestation-free sources sends a powerful message to its supply chain that protecting the environment is critical for long-term value creation,” said Lucia von Reusner, shareholder advocate at Green Century Capital Management, in a press release. “By raising the bar, Kellogg’s palm oil commitment should encourage other companies to step up and support the development of transparent and responsible palm oil supply chains.”

Photo: Dr. Asril Darussamin, Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil

Passionate about both writing and sustainability, Alexis Petru is freelance journalist based in the San Francisco Bay Area whose work has appeared on Earth911, Huffington Post and Patch.com. Prior to working as a writer, she coordinated environmental programs for Bay Area cities and counties. Connect with Alexis on Twitter at @alexispetru

Alexis Petru headshot

Passionate about both writing and sustainability, Alexis Petru is freelance journalist and communications consultant based in the San Francisco Bay Area whose work has appeared on Earth911, Huffington Post and Patch.com. Prior to working as a writer, she coordinated environmental programs for various Bay Area cities and counties for seven years. She has a degree in cultural anthropology from UC Berkeley.

Read more stories by Alexis Petru