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Leon Kaye headshot

Animated Video Highlights Labor Abuses in Palm Oil Supply Chain

By Leon Kaye

The global palm oil industry insists it is improving its environmental and human rights record. But many NGOs believe the commodity’s impact on people and the planet is becoming even worse.

Meanwhile more companies, including General Mills last month, are responding to pressure from environmental groups to drop suppliers running afoul of the industry’s sustainable palm oil sourcing guidelines. And more governments, including Colombia, have begun to crack down on palm oil companies accused of human rights violations or deforestation. But their efforts are akin to taking a butter knife into an AK-47 fight, as clearly more work is needed on this front. At times, it seems the only environmental relief comes when the palm oil industry is in a slump, as reports suggest current demand has slowed down and prices have declined.

To that end, Rainforest Action Network (RAN) released an animated video that highlights the organization’s largest criticisms of the palm oil industry. The video focuses on: the sector’s impact on workers and the environment; the alleged non-compliance of a PepsiCo joint venture in Indonesia; and the plight of three palm oil plantation workers, whose experiences tell the tale of what NGOs call endemic labor abuses throughout much of the industry.


The video, launched on RAN’s Facebook page earlier this week, is lucid, brief and gets straight to the point. A PepsiCo joint venture sources as much as 450,000 tons of palm oil annually from Malaysia and Indonesia, RAN informs viewers in the video. Half of all consumer packaged goods worldwide contain palm oil, it continued. And the amount of virgin land cleared in Malaysia and Indonesia to make way for palm oil plantations could be larger than the states of California and New York combined.

RAN highlighted human rights abuses, particularly ongoing issues within the Indonesian PepsiCo joint venture, in a report issued earlier this year. Workers at these vast palm oil plantations have been subjected to a bevy of abuses, RAN says. Working conditions include the typical long work hours for low wages, excessive exposure to agricultural chemicals, confiscation of passports, and massive daily quotas that force some workers to have their families, including children, join them on the job in order to avoid the risk of having their wages cut.

These abuses have long been rampant in the industry. And NGOs including RAN and Greenpeace continue to make clear that that food manufacturers and palm oil suppliers have not done nearly enough to implement much-needed reforms. Despite the promises from the likes of confectioners such as Hershey and producers including Singapore-based Golden Agri, environmental groups and human rights activists suggest that they did not go far enough. The difference in RAN’s latest campaign, however, is that PepsiCo is clearly the most visible target and bête noire of the organization.

The strategy is clear. Relentlessly and loudly calling out PepsiCo, one of the world’s most visible beverage and snack foods brands, could actually convince other companies that it is in their interest to embrace transparency and commit to cleaning up their global supply chains. Once NGOs have their way and can convince PepsiCo to develop a palm oil procurement policy that satisfies environmental and human rights advocates, it should not take PepsiCo’s competitors long to fall in line. The video is a powerful start, and it projects a clear and forceful argument: These companies ignore RAN and other NGOs at the risk of harming their long-term brand reputation.

Image credit: ILO/Flickr

Leon Kaye headshot

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.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye