Adam Harrison: Companies should act – not palm us off with token efforts

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The Independent Online

Productive and versatile, it's no surprise that palm oil has become the world's most popular vegetable oil with 40 million tonnes traded every year. It's found in a plethora of products, both food and non-food, in a range of different guises. But it has come at a cost.

Most is sourced from Malaysia and Indonesia, where it is grown on land that was previously forest – and home to a wide array of species, including orang-utans, tigers, elephants and rhinos. Local communities that rely on the same forests for food and shelter are also threatened. And to make matters worse still, the conversion of forests and the draining of peatlands is driving climate change.

It is for these reasons that WWF helped to establish the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil and develop a system of ensuring that palm oil is produced without loosing valuable forests or damaging vulnerable communities. The world's first certified sustainable palm oil was imported into Europe in November 2008. Job done? Far from it.

The buyers and users of palm oil did not respond as they should have. Six months on and very little of the available certified palm oil had been bought. So, we decided to give them a push in the right direction by finding out who was, or wasn't, doing what.

The first palm oil buyers' scorecard was published in October. Some 25 UK companies were involved. Seven did pretty well, including M&S, Unilever, Sainsbury's and Cadbury. One did badly. And the majority "could do better". All the UK companies needed to do better, even those in the scorecard's top 10.

Since we published the scorecard we have seen more public commitments to use sustainable palm oil coming from Waitrose, Premier Foods and Boots, including some from companies we did not score –such as Nairn's, Walkers, Thornton's and Ginsters. We have also seen other companies, such as United Biscuits, upping their commitments or taking action on earlier promises.

This is very welcome and three months after publication almost 340,000 tonnes of certified palm oil has been traded. While this is an improvement it still represents less than a third of what is available to buy and less than 1 per cent of the total palm oil used in the world.

It is clear that palm oil growers in places such as Indonesia will increase the area of their plantations that are managed sustainably if they see what they have produced being sold. All supermarkets and manufacturers need to stop talking and act. With the number of available options for buying sustainable palm oil it's one of the easiest ways for brands to address a major environmental challenge.

Palm oil is ubiquitous on the supermarket shelves in the UK, but there is no credible reason why all of it here, and the five million tonnes used across Europe, cannot be sustainable.

Adam Harrison is senior policy officer of the World Wildlife Fund Scotland