By Calen May-Tobin
Like most Americans, I’m really devoted to the products I buy. I’ve been using Old Spice since I was 15 and entered my “Frank Sinatra” phase, on a bad day nothing cheers me up quite like a bowl (or six) of Lucky Charms or Cinnamon Toast Crunch, and seeing a Taco Bell sign or McDonald’s golden arches on a long car trip never fails to reinvigorate me. For better or worse, we Americans have developed an attachment to these brands and the companies that make them.
So, as I delved into the commitments these companies have made to address palm-related deforestation and peatland destruction, I was disheartened to see how little some of the brands I love are doing to address the problem. That research was part of a project to score 30 top consumer companies in the fast food, personal care and packaged food sectors on their commitments to source deforestation- and peat-free palm oil. The report, which was released this week, shows that while a few companies are leading the way, most have a long way to go to fully address palm-related habitat destruction and climate emissions.
Most of us realize that fast food isn’t great for our health, but I was shocked to see how bad it was for the health of our planet as well. The fast food sector was far and away the worst-scoring of the sectors we evaluated. Only two companies (McDonald’s and Subway) out of 10 had palm commitments which were strong enough to receive points, and even those companies were pretty low scoring. This means the palm oil that’s going into our Dunkin’ Donuts and McDonald’s apple pies is still likely driving the destruction of habitat for the endangered orangutans and tigers, and spewing millions of tons of carbon dioxide (the leading greenhouse gas) into the atmosphere.
Even those companies that have made strong commitments, however, still have a long road ahead of them. Commitments are only the first step, and are only as good as the paper they’re printed on. The real change takes place when companies act on their commitments and put them into practice. A journey might start with a single step, but you’ll never reach your destination if you don’t take the rest of them.
Does this mean you should stop buying products with palm oil? The short answer is “No.” The longer answer can be found in this post. It’s more effective to pressure companies than it is to change global buying habits.
So, let’s make sure we can buy our favorite products without feeling a pang of guilt and demand that ALL companies stop buying palm oil that destroys forests and peatland. Based on our review of 30 companies, UCS has chosen six of the largest palm oil buyers in the fast food, personal care, and packaged food sectors that have the ability to help move the entire industry—if they act now. We need your help to convince these big brands to take palm oil seriously. Visit www.ucsusa.org/palmoilaction to send a message to the companies demanding that they do better.
Sabah, Malaysia Image: Rhett Butler
Charts courtesy of the Union of Concerned Scientists
Calen May-Tobin is a policy analyst for the Union of Concerned Scientists with expertise reducing emissions from tropical deforestation and degradation. He holds a Master’s degree in ecology from the University of California, Irvine. See Calen's full bio.