Greenpeace Report on P&G’s Palm Oil Sources Could Spur Industry Change
By ERICA GIES
Could Procter & Gamble taking steps to clean up its palm oil sourcing practices set an example for others to follow? Greenpeace thinks so. The NGO is using the lever of P&G’s big name in an attempt to spur industry-wide change in the sourcing of palm oil. The campaign group recently concluded a year-long investigation into P&G’s supply chain, looking at the source of the palm oil the multinational uses as an ingredient in its household brands such as Head & Shoulders shampoo and Gillette shaving gel. Greenpeace also launched a petition, since signed by more than 300,000 consumers globally, calling on P&G to improve its practices.
“If a well known company like Procter & Gamble can show leadership to clean up supply chains, we expect other companies will follow,” said Bustar Maitar, global head of Greenpeace’s Indonesia Forest Campaign.
Like 1,300 other companies from 50 countries, P&G is a member of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), a certification standard launched in 2004 to ensure that companies could continue to manufacture foods and personal products without cutting down tropical forests, thus destroying habitat for endangered animals and causing carbon dioxide emissions from the land-use change.
But thanks to opaque supply chains, the Roundtable is not actually preventing the destruction of forests and peatlands, according to a Greenpeace report published last fall.
“On the ground, we’ve seen lots of RSPO members still doing forest clearing in the area, which is an indication of weak enforcement and a weak standard,” said Maitar. “RSPO, from my perspective, has been used for green washing by companies who want to expand their plantations into the forest.”
Leading the Way
While calling out P&G specifically via the petition, Greenpeace also published a related report that reviewed a range of multinational companies and their track records on this issue. The NGO cited another company as a leader: Nestlé.
In 2010, the multinational food corporation committed to a no deforestation policy, including 100% traceability. The company is currently implementing its policies and reporting its progress transparently, according to Greenpeace.
Duncan Pollard, Nestlé’s head of stakeholder engagement in sustainability, said that deforestation is a complex issue, but “now we’re seeing a wave of ambition to tackle this that is sweeping the industry.”
Nestlé mapped its supply chains, and last year, after six months of research, it published the first global maps of deforestation that went beyond the national level so suppliers, competitors, and NGOs could use them. But as of a month ago, a superior mapping tool was rolled out by the World Resources Institute, said Pollard. Global Forest Watch publicly shares fresh satellite data to track deforestation. These maps now help Nestlé target its on-the-ground audits, said Pollard.
Campaign groups like Greenpeace can also use these maps. “It makes it difficult for any company to hide from knowledge of what’s happening,” said Pollard.
Is Progress on the Horizon?
Joining P&G on Greenpeace’s “non-forest-friendly” side are Pepsi Co, Johnson & Johnson, and Colgate-Palmolive, among others. Rated “forest-friendly” along with Nestlé, are L’Oreal, Unilever and Ferrero, makers of Ferrero Rocher chocolate and Nutella.
Johnson & Johnson says it doesn’t intend to stay near the bottom of Greenpeace’s list. “We are in the process of developing a palm oil sourcing policy, with input from key stakeholders including NGOs such as Greenpeace,” said Paulette Frank, vice president of sustainability for the company. “We are also initiating a supply chain mapping project.”
Likewise, P&G said it is committed to speaking with Greenpeace and other stakeholders regarding rainforest preservation. “We agree that deforestation in the supply chain is not acceptable,” said Paul Fox, director of corporate communications. “This is a complex issue affecting many industries and will require strong collaboration and partnerships to develop the solutions that are needed.”
Responsible, Rather than Sustainable
Last April, four palm oil producers and four NGOs, including Greenpeace, formed the Palm Oil Innovation Group (POIG), which hopes to stop deforestation caused by the palm oil industry. Other founding members are WWF, Rainforest Action Network, Forest Peoples Programme, Brazil-based Acropalma Vegetable Oils and Fats, Golden Agri-Resources from Singapore, Columbia-based Daabon Organic and New Britain Palm Oil Limited, headquartered in Papua New Guinea.
POIG members WWF and Rainforest Action Network have also published palm oil reports that rate companies’ policies, transparency, and supply chains. WWF also gives high marks to Unilever, L’Oreal and Nestlé, and low scores to P&G, Colgate-Palmolive and PepsiCo. But it rates Johnson & Johnson higher than Greenpeace does.
Because just 15% of the world’s palm oil was certified sustainable in 2013, some companies’ commitments to buy 100% sustainable palm oil by 2015 are being fulfilled via virtual certificates, sort of like carbon credits. It is difficult to prove that the certificates actually support an increase in sustainable palm oil.
“People have hidden behind the easy options and have pushed the problem down the supply chain – and conveniently forgotten that they are a player in the supply chain and have a duty to source responsibly,” said Simon Lord, group director for sustainability for New Britain Palm Oil.
Earlier this month, the POIG issued an invitation for progressive palm oil players to join its initiative in the hopes of increasing both global demand and supply of “responsible” palm oil. Lord said founders believe the term “sustainable” has lost credibility.
Partnering for Good
Watchdog groups are sometimes seen as the bane of corporate existence. But the tough love approach Greenpeace is taking with P&G has a track record of working. “We exposed Nestlé as a company [contributing to] deforestation by sourcing from Golden Agri-Resources,” said Greenpeace’s Maitar.
“After a couple of months, Nestlé made a no deforestation commitment and began cleaning up its supply chain.”
Likewise, Golden Agri-Resources made a no deforestation commitment in 2011. And Wilmar International, a Singapore-based company that processes or trades more than 45% of the world’s palm oil, just committed in December to supplying palm oil that does not cause deforestation or violate human rights.
Corporations’ relationships with NGOs can be a partnership, said Chris Hogg, Nestlé’s deputy head of corporate media relations. “They’re also a series of eyes and ears on the ground,” he said. “And if they find something, we take it seriously and look into it.”
Erica Gies is an independent reporter who covers water and energy for The New York Times, The Economist, Scientific American and other publications.