Most British manufacturers and retailers including Boots, Morrisons and Waitrose have done little to limit the environmental damage done by the production of the world's cheapest vegetable oil, according to research published today.
In a survey of leading European food and household firms, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) said that only Sainsbury's, Marks and Spencer and a handful of other companies had made substantial progress towards sourcing sustainable palm oil.
Continental retailers came out worst in the survey of 59 firms, with many French, German and Dutch chains making no effort to prevent the huge problems caused by the oil's production.
Palm oil is found in chocolate, biscuits, cereals, soap, shampoo and dozens of other products, but is also widely used as a bio-fuel for cars and power stations. While providing much needed income for developing countries, it has led to severe deforestation, human rights abuses and loss of endangered wildlife in Malaysia and Indonesia.
Orangutans, the arboreal great apes now restricted to the islands of Borneo and Sumatra, are threatened with extinction because of the loss of their habitats. Deforestation – of which palm oil is the biggest cause in Indonesia and Malaysia – also generates 20 per cent of global climate change emissions.
The WWF disclosed that 40 of the 59 companies had not bought any oil certified sustainable by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (Rspo) – which sets environmental standards for the £16bn-a-year industry, the most important of which is a ban on planting new oil palms in virgin forests.
Of 25 UK companies, 14 had not bought any Rspo oil – Aldi, Associated British Foods, Croda international, Boots, Warburtons, Britannia Food Ingredients, Waitrose, Morrisons, Jordans Ryvita, Northern Foods, Reckitt Benckiser, Co-op, Premier Foods and Tesco. Out of a maximum of 29 points, WWF scored them between 0 and 16.
However, seven British firms were among the best 10 performers Europe-wide, including Sainsbury's, Marks and Spencer and Cadbury. Among foreign companies, Nestlé, ranked mid-table, this week committed to switching to 100 per cent Rspo oil by 2015.
The WWF said it hoped the naming and shaming would raise awareness of palm oil's environmental damage and encourage companies to act. Presently, companies have bought only 19 per cent of the 1.3m tonnes of certified oil.
The WWF believes palm oil will grow in importance in coming years, because production is forecast to rise by up to 10 per cent annually and the only place palm oil can be grown is in the tropics, home to the world's great rainforests.
"The top-scoring companies have shown what's possible, with some buying substantial quantities of certified oil, but now it's a question of whether the majority will follow," said Adam Harrison, WWF's senior policy officer for food and agriculture. "If they do, it will transform the market, giving producers the confidence to grow more sustainable palm oil. If they don't, there will be grave consequences for the environment."
Waitrose said it recognised the importance of the issue and expected to make progress in the next 12-18 months, while Morrisons said: "We are working with our suppliers to ensure palm oil used as an ingredient in our own label products comes from sustainable sources."
Lidl said it was working towards securing a sustainable supply by 2015, while Warburtons said that in addition to joining the Rspo it would take advice from the WWF on sustainable sourcing. Boots said it used only a small amount of derivatives that were not commercially available, "hence our score in this report which we do not feel reflects our commitment to this subject".
Justin King, chief executive of Sainsbury's, which sources sustainable oil for its fish, biscuits and soap, said: "Much more work now needs to be done, and it is vital that other retailers and food manufacturers follow our lead to ensure that the rainforests are preserved for future generations."
The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil
* Established in 2003, the RSPO aims to stop environmental damage from palm oil. But not enough companies are paying the extra 10 to 20 per cent per tonne for this greener supply.
* By mid-2009, certified plantations were able to produce 1.75 million tons – one third of the EU's palm oil use. By this month, only 200,000 tonnes had been traded – 5 per cent of Europe's annual consumption.