Action 113. Further down the winding palm oil path.

In Action 112, I talked about the  challenges of palm oil, and how the international community is making some moves towards improving the devastating ecological and climate impacts of this food and fuel source. I ended with a musing on the palm oil in my girl scout cookies, so I wanted to follow through on that. It turns out that Girl Scouts are a window into the extremely complicated world that is palm oil sustainability, so I want to spend a few further moments on this.

Here is what the Girl Scouts FAQs say regarding their use of palm oil:

The GreenPalm logo on the Girl Scout cookie package signifies a commitment by Girl Scouts and our licensed bakers to developing a worldwide supply of sustainable palm oil. Unfortunately, it is not currently possible to assure a fully sustainable supply in the quantities required by our bakers. The GreenPalm investment supports farmers’ initiatives to become sustainable. The presence of the GreenPalm logo on the cookie package provides assurance to consumers and our members that our bakers have purchased enough GreenPalm certificates to offset 100 percent of the palm oil used in Girl Scout Cookies. Visit http://www.greenpalm.org to learn more about GreenPalm certificates.

So what does this mean? If you go to green palm, you find out about a certification process put in place by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) that allows companies to buy in to the sustainable palm oil market. This program creates certificates, so that producers of certifiably sustainable palm oil (as defined by the RSPO) can sell a certificate for each tonne produced. Its kind of like a carbon credit market, with the idea that if folks on the buying end can’t directly buy all the sustainable palm oil they need for their products, they can “make up the difference” by purchasing these certificates, which in theory moves the market towards greater production of sustainably produced oil. 

So is this greenwashing, or is this movement in the right direction? From what I can tell, it is some of both. The RSPO set up this system because they acknowledged that growing the market of sustainable palm oil is not an overnight effort, and that setting up a market incentivizing sustainable oil production will help create the investment needed to grow sustainable palm plantations. For some environmental organizations, there are serious concerns that the certificate program allows companies to greenwash their investment, because they aren’t actually purchasing a sustainable product itself. There is always the balancing act of to what extent the credit marketplace, be it carbon offsets or palm oil, allows companies to look good, while not actually walking the walk- so while they might be investing some dollars moving the market towards the right place, is that enough, or as much as they could do if they were simply required to purchase the actual sustainable product itself? The certificate program is still relatively young, and the jury seems to be out on exactly what effect it is having on pushing change from within the industry. Groups like the RSPO will say there’s no way to feed the demand for sustainable palm oil at this time, so ancillary options are necessary; groups like Greenpeace will say that’s a political response and governments could be pushing these groups harder and making the requirements and timelines more rigorous. Some companies, like Lush, the UK-based soap brand, have become so disenchanted with what they see as lack of initiative and change in the palm oil industry, that they’ve forgone palm oil completely (Lush has switched to coconut oil- is that any better? There’s another rabbit hole I haven’t yet gone down). The reality is, as always, likely to be somewhere in the middle.

In the meantime, I think the role that outside NGOs, like Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, and the Rainforest Foundation, have to play here is important, because they are insisting on transparency and accountability. The RSPO does include some of these nonprofits in its membership; the questions that still remain, however, is how effective and powerful these groups can be within the organization. There have been some recent successes on additional promises made by some companies, including General Mills and Colgate-Palmolive, to go even further than RSPO standards in protecting southeast Asian rain forests and minimizing impacts of their palm oil sourcing. Its clear, however, that nonprofits concerned about this issue are not taking a sit- and -wait approach for companies that are not making progress or trying to backpedal; for example, SumOfUs has recently created a petition to take Unilever, the mega-household soap and fragrance brand, to task for attempting to undermine definitions of what constitutes high-carbon-stock forests, in an apparent attempt to weaken those definitions in ways that could increase forest conversion. Unilever has made a bold goal of 100% traceability of their palm oil sources by the end of 2014: redefining forest practices could certainly undermine the usefulness of that goal.

Like many supply-chain issues, the issue of sustainability in palm oil is an extraordinarily complex one, full of the push-me-pull-you of corporate profits, accountability, transparency and international markets. The good news is, people are making noise, companies are paying attention, and there are definite, concrete ways in which we as individual consumers can continue to demand better practices from the industry. Should we applaud Girl Scout Cookies for taking a step in the right direction and entering the palm oil credit market place? Yes, I think so- but we also need to make sure that that isn’t the end of road of their corporate responsibility, and that they and many other corporations that use palm oil continue to use their leverage to push suppliers towards more sustainable practices that have concrete goals of traceability and sustainability of supply chains.

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