An effective public campaign (on palm oil)

PalmoilYou know you’ve had an impact when the Economist devotes three pages to your campaign, so hats off to Greenpeace and the other organizations featured in this week’s spread on palm oil. Here are some excerpts:

“Palm oil is a popular, cheap commodity, which green activists are doing their best to turn into a commercial liability. Companies are finding them impossible to ignore.

Early on April 21st 2008, Greenpeace activists dressed as orang-utans stormed Unilever’s headquarters in London to draw attention to the damage done to Indonesian tropical rainforests by the production of palm oil, an ingredient in many of Unilever’s products. It was effective: soon after the orang-utan invasion the company said it would draw all its palm oil from “sustainable” sources by 2015.

The charges against palm oil are serious: environmental groups regard it as a danger not only to Asian wildlife but also to the health of the planet. Between 1967 and 2000 the area under cultivation in Indonesia expanded from less than 2,000 square kilometres (770 square miles) to more than 30,000 square kilometres.

In Sumatra and Borneo, palm-oil expansion threatens elephants, tigers and rhinos, as well as orang-utans. Enormous amounts of carbon dioxide are released as forests and peatlands are destroyed. Deforestation makes Indonesia one of the world’s largest carbon-dioxide emitters. On the bright side, it is true that palm oil has contributed to economic growth in the countries that produce it. But even that has been tarnished in some cases by social conflict, for example when locals or indigenous groups have been turfed off their land to make room for plantations.

Such matters are increasingly difficult for buyers of palm oil to ignore. Even though it takes only 4% of the global total, Unilever is the world’s biggest buyer, making it an obvious target for activists. Kraft and General Mills, two big American food companies, HSBC, a huge bank, and Cargill, an American agribusiness giant, have also come in for criticism. In the past few months, Nestlé, another food giant, has been attacked in a spoof online advertisement that shows an office worker eating a finger of KitKat. The chocolate digit turns out to belong to an orang-utan, with bloody consequences.

These attacks are proving potent. Nestle suspended purchases from suspect suppliers after the KitKat video had been viewed 1.5m times and prompted 200,000 e-mails of protest. According to Daniela Montalto of Greenpeace, “We had been asking Nestlé to stop buying products from rainforest destruction for two years before we launched our campaign. Nestlé cracked within just two months because the overwhelming public response made the company listen.

Companies are changing their buying policies in response, and paying more attention to the distant reaches of their supply chains. And the lessons may reach far beyond palm oil. With oil of a different type continuing to spew into the Gulf of Mexico, companies’ environmental responsibilities have never been more public.

Because of palm oil’s connection to deforestation, environmentalists are unlikely to reduce the pressure on companies that use it. WWF publishes an annual scorecard of the palm-oil policies of 59 European companies. At the bottom are companies such as Danone, a French dairy-goods company, and E. Leclerc, a hypermarket chain. Some, such as Aldi, a German retailer, and Géant Casino, another French hypermarket group, decline to answer questions about their palm-oil policies.

The Forest Footprint Disclosure project, supported by the British government and several charitable foundations, has just started an annual call for companies to indicate the extent to which their procurement policies for palm oil, soya, timber, beef, leather and biofuels are linked to deforestation. In the first year most companies chose not to respond. However, the project has the endorsement of institutional investors holding assets of $4 trillion. These sign a letter requesting disclosure, which will be sent annually to several hundred companies. This might become influential, especially now that the Gulf of Mexico oil spill has focused fund managers’ minds on environmental risks. In June a group of British MPs of green inclination called for pension funds to be forced to reveal more about such risks.

There are other forces at work besides pestering from greens and governments. One is attitudes within companies. Mr Poynton believes an important reason why Nestlé changed its policy was the opinion of its staff. For years companies have been saying that a commitment to corporate social responsibility (CSR) can improve the quality of staff that they can recruit. It follows that these recruits then care about the behaviour of the company that employs them.

What happens from now on will depend on whether pressure is kept up on all parts of the industry. Clearly, the industry would not have moved so far, so fast, without pressure from green activists. Several companies have learned that they are vulnerable, politically and therefore commercially, when they do not control the distant ends of their supply chains. Mr Poynton may be overstating the case when he says: “Most of the environmental and social issues are embedded in products at extraction, at the resource level.” But he is surely right when he adds: “It is no longer possible to ignore that end.””

And here’s the highly effective (and truly revolting) Kitkat ad

Subscribe to our Newsletter

You can unsubscribe at any time by clicking the link in the footer of our emails. For information about our privacy practices, please see our Privacy Policy.

We use MailChimp as our marketing platform. By subscribing, you acknowledge that your information will be transferred to MailChimp for processing. Learn more about MailChimp's privacy practices here.

Comments

5 Responses to “An effective public campaign (on palm oil)”
  1. Claudia

    Dear Duncan,

    your post introduces a topic that tends to attract the public attention but actually there are two distinct situations being analyzed as one (environmental risks) what sounds not only as bad analysis, but a cruel one.

    Yeah, no denial, forests are giving space to palm plantation as (evil) European industries found palm oil to be the cheapest solution for their (trashy) products loved and consumed worldwide. Then green-environmentalist’s Europeans ( totally acting like bad Samaritans) scream: No, stop killing the planet and the wild life, no more palm oil shall pass!

    Meanwhile poor miserable Indonesians, Sumatrans, too unlucky to be born as humans, have to find something else to do with their lives while their home country, which can actually be any natural resources provider nation, remains poor, under-developed, violent, living “on the hands” of the “generous” European green-aiders as business moves somewhere else.

    Some say it is a solution.

    But anyway, you go from pail oil to crude oil like dark to milk chocolate. On the other side of the post you mentioned how the oil spill on US’s waters in Mexico Golf “has focused fund managers’ minds on environmental risks”, well, it is not true. Those guys (fund managers) have heard and seen it all before, somewhere else, in Niger or Nigeria maybe…

    The thing is, it is pretty difficult to seriously fight the “crude business” as they probably have employed mamas and dads’ all over Europe for their entire lives and now pay their pension, don’t they?

    It is annoying to see two totally different measurement systems in use (specially in name of environmentalism). There is more to palm oil and oil spill than the naive European environmentalist spirit can bear. The fearless geopolitics, or better, the political economy of oil spills is urgent as it is nothing but a power-relations issue.

    What I mean is, you are not a “bad Samaritan” but you sound like one when you publish a post reductionist like this.

    Cheers,

    Claudia

  2. The rain-forest in Indonesia is cut down because the alternative use (wildlife) is way below growing Oil Palm.

    What if Oil Palm would not be the alternative? Would other types of cultivation by more economical than the current use (wildlife)? Probably so. Probably it would be even more damaging to the environment. Indeed, Oil palm, as a perennial is a very sustainable crop. Alternatives like annual crops, or just wood cutting, are much less so.

    It is not by abolishing the alternatives that the rain forest will be saved, but by giving the forest some economical or emotional value it does not have for the moment.

  3. Selfish_Westerner

    Its funny how selfish the westerner is by forcing Indonesia and Malaysia to “keep its virgin jungle” in the name of environment.

    It doesnt matter if its people kept below poverty level for years and years.

    Hey thats fine, its ok for european and american to destroy their once pristine forest and consumed as much as resource as they can also produce as much as pollution as possible.

    But when these asian want to be rich too, O HELL NO. REMEMBER UR PLACE ASIAN !!!!, UR FOREST IS TO SUCK UP ALL OF EUROPEAN AND AMERICAN POLLUTION EMMMMKAYYYYYY!!!!!

  4. Sandra

    1. Palm Oil is not making Indonesians richer. Only a few will get the benefits, but the majority is loosing: land, living conditions, dependence to big (and corrupted) companies…
    2. Palm, a sustainable crop ??? What about the land fired and replanted every few years ? And the dead soil even after plantation has been removed.

    We should all do our best to put pressure on companies to ban the usage of palm oil and individually, boycott this poison.

Leave a Reply

Your e-mail address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.