Palm oil is an inescapable part of everyday life. As the new research from the Independent shows, it is now virtually impossible to avoid buying products that contain palm oil in every supermarket, chemist and sweet shop in Britain. Considering the fact that this commodity is now one of the most environmentally damaging on earth, this can seem like a gloomy prospect - but there are a few reasons for hope.
In Indonesia, the picture is extremely worrying. In the last two decades, millions of hectares of rainforest have been destroyed to make way for new plantations. Peat forests and swamps which have stood for centuries are being chopped down, drained and burned, to be replaced with gigantic monoculture crops. This systematic destruction is now responsible for an astonishing four percent of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions, and the orang-utan, perhaps the most potent symbol of man’s kinship with nature, could be less than ten years from extinction.
This crisis stems from the failure of the industry to grasp the consequences of explosive, unrestrained growth. It was not until 2003 that attempts were made to slow the destruction by creating the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm oil (RSPO), a body which brought together growers, transporters and consumers of palm oil. It set criteria for companies who wished to claim that their oil was “sustainable”, allowing them to benefit from the good PR that this kind of initiative can bring. Yet six years later only a trickle of certified palm oil has entered the marketplace, and some RSPO members freely admit that it is failing to achieve its objectives. Meanwhile RSPO member companies operating in Indonesia are able to use the organisation to burnish their green credentials whilst simultaneously destroying rainforests with impunity.
British companies have a key role to play here. Some are rightly frustrated by the slow progress of the Roundtable and are looking to do more, by engaging with their suppliers and supporting campaigns for an end to rainforest clearance for palm oil. Others insist that their influence is limited, but Greenpeace believes that all UK retailers and manufacturers have powerful tools at their disposal. If these companies were to cancel their purchasing contracts with the worst offending palm oil producers, it would reverberate through the industry. This kind of financial signal would enable those producers who are committed to sustainability to come to the fore, offering the British consumer the chance to support environmentally responsible palm oil for the very first time.
The sheer number of products that contain palm oil can seem daunting. But with consumer pressure, industry leadership and political incentives these tropical rainforests can be placed off limits - for good.