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Is Palm Oil-Driven Deforestation the Secret Ingredient in Your Favorite Products?


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.

F is for fast food

Fast food menu items, like doughnuts, are sometimes prepared with palm oil.

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.

Over-reliance on half-measures

On average, personal care companies scored better than the fast food sector. However, only two companies, L’Oréal and Reckitt Benckiser (which makes Clearasil and other products), have committed to buying traceable deforestation- and peat-free palm oil. Many of the other companies rely on the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) standards to meet their palm oil commitments. I’ve written before on the limitations of the RSPO to address deforestation and peatland conversion. Companies in all three sectors that currently rely on the RSPO need to go further in order to fully address the deforestation and peatland destruction associated with palm oil.

Leading the way but a long way to go

The packaged food sector has the strongest commitments overall. Four out of 10 companies (Kellogg’s, Mondelēz, Nestlé and Unilever) are leading the way with commitments to buy traceable deforestation- and peat-free palm oil. The rest of the companies in this sector have a lot of work to do to catch up with the leaders.

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.

Consumers speak, companies listen

What can you do to make companies change their ways? The best thing you can do is demand that these companies take deforestation off their ingredients list. We know from experience that when consumers talk, companies listen. For example, back in 2010 consumers and NGOs organized a massive campaign against Nestlé, after it was linked to deforestation and other problems related to the palm oil it used. As a direct result Nestlé now has the strongest palm oil commitment out there.

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 

A version of this post originally appeared on the Union of Concerned Scientists "The Equation" blog

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.

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