Illegal palm oil from forests taints household brands
Times Online: Ben Webster, Environment Editor: 11 December 2009
A company that produces many of Britain’s best-known household brands has been exposed as contributing to the destruction of rainforests by buying thousands of tonnes of illegal palm oil.
Unilever, which uses palm oil in its Flora and Stork margarines, Dove toiletries and Persil washing powder among many other products, will today announce that it is cutting links with Sinar Mas, Indonesia’s largest palm oil company.
Unilever is acting after being shown photographic evidence of Sinar Mas clearing rainforest in protected areas, including reserves for the country’s endangered orang-utan population.
The Anglo-Dutch company, which claims to be a leader in protecting rainforests and chairs the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), was informed almost two years ago about Sinar Mas’s illegal activities.
It cancelled the £20 million annual contract in the past few days after learning that Greenpeace was about to publish a dossier of evidence.
The RSPO, which also includes Sinar Mas, is a self-regulation body that aims to prevent illegal forest clearance. Environmental groups have criticised it as toothless and an obstacle to independent scrutiny.
The growth of the palm oil industry in Indonesia has turned the country into the third-largest emitter of CO2, after China and the US. Indonesia has the fastest rate of deforestation, losing an area the size of Wales every year.
Deforestation contributes 15-20 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions and is one of the key issues being debated at the Copenhagen climate change summit.
Sinar Mas is one of dozens of palm oil companies likely to exploit loopholes in proposed new UN rules on protecting forests. Under the draft text of the rules, known as Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (Redd), palm oil plantations created by clearing rainforests would qualify for payments from a new fund under which rich countries would pay developing countries for storing carbon in trees.
Gavin Neath, Unilever’s vice-president for communications, said: “We have received very serious allegations against Sinar Mas and we had no choice but to suspend future purchases from them.” He said that the company had not acted before because it thought it better to work with Sinar Mas to improve its practices. He admitted that this approach had failed.
Unilever is the world’s biggest consumer of palm oil and has pledged to buy only from certified sustainable plantations from 2015. This year, 85 per cent of its palm oil was uncertified.
Waitrose said this month that all the palm oil in its own-brand products would be from sustainable sources by 2012.
The growth of certified palm oil has been held back by a dispute between producers and buyers over the price for the sustainable product.
Producers had been asking for an additional 10 per cent to cover the cost of certification. Mr Neath said that Unilever had been unwilling to pay this because it believed that consumers had little understanding of the issues about palm oil and would not accept the extra cost. Unilever negotiated a smaller premium on 180,000 tonnes of sustainable palm oil this year out of its consumption of 1.3 million tonnes.
Simon Lewis, research fellow on tropical forests at Leeds University, said: “We shouldn’t have the companies buying the palm oil being the policemen. We need a strong Redd agreement with independent monitoring and no loopholes for new plantations.”