Palm oil is finding its way into more food and personal care products, with 85 percent of the global supply coming from Malaysia and Indonesia. The result has been a massive conversion of rain forests into monocrop palm oil plantations, with a devastating impact on the environment and local communities. Among the many organizations urging businesses to take rapid action on incorporating responsibly sourced palm oil within their supply chains, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) has been involved in the fight against the links this raw material has with human rights violations and environmental degradation.
To that end, UCS has released its second annual palm oil report, which tracks 30 large and important companies that source a significant amount of palm oil within its supply chains. Following up on its 2014 report, the 50 year old organization evaluated these leading brands to gauge their ongoing commitment (or lack thereof) to sourcing what many call “deforestation-free” palm oil. UCS’ methodology, which graded companies on several factors such as transparency and supply chain traceability, provided results that may jar many consumers.
Consumers with a late night fast food craving may want to reconsider their purchase decisions after reading UCS’s surveys. Companies including Yum! Brands (which owns KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco), Wendy’s, Domino’s and Carl’s Jr. scored a big zero out of 100 for offering neither policies on palm oil sourcing or data about its supply chain. Starbucks, McDonald’s and Burger King barely registered any score. The only company within this sector to show any action towards responsible palm oil procurement was Dunkin’ Brands, which developed a detailed commitment to revamping its supply chain last fall.
Retailers only performed marginally better than fast food companies in UCS’ analysis. In evaluating 10 companies’ private label food products, Safeway was the only retail store chain to perform well in the survey. Whole Foods, which UCS criticized for having a palm oil policy full of vague statements, only barely edged out Walmart. Target and Costco, which overall have solid corporate responsibility reputations, were among the retail companies that UCS scored with a big zilch.
Packaged food companies overall were rated much higher than the retailers that sell their products. Nestle scored highest amongst the 40 companies included in this survey, followed closely by Danone, Kellogg’s and Unilever. PepsiCo scored relatively high, a surprise since the company has been savaged in the past because of accusations its palm oil policy was far less than robust. Lovers of Velveeta, Jell-O and other brightly colored foods including Macaroni and Cheese might want to take note that Kraft had the weakest palm oil policy amongst its competitors.
Colgate-Palmolive was the rated as most transparent and proactive within the personal care industry, mostly because UCS judged the company to have a watertight procurement and disclosure policy. The close difference in points between its competitors including Henkel, L’Oreal and P&G were based on the percentage of responsible palm oil used relative to the entire amount used within their entire supply chains.
Consumers who are confused about palm oil, how companies use it and the effects it has on people and the planet should also read bulletins issued by other NGOs, including Rainforest Action Network and WWF. The debate over how some companies are performing better than others is still ongoing, but these organizations will agree on one fact: palm oil can be sourced without the devastating impacts such as deforestation. And companies have got to clean up their supply chains and ensure their palm oil is responsibly sourced and conflict-free, or their long term business prospects are at risk.
Image credit: Energie-experten.org
Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.
Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.