Not Where You Expected to Find Deforestation?: Examining the Palm Oil Commitments of 40 of America’s Top Companies

, analyst, Tropical Forest & Climate Initiative | April 1, 2015, 11:30 am EDT
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A lot can change in a year.

Thirteen months ago, UCS released a report scoring 30 of America’s top companies’ palm oil commitments. Since that time a lot of things have happened, both good and bad. Back then, nobody knew that Meghan Trainor was all about that bass or how fancy Iggy Azalea is. We are one step closer to buying Cuban cigars on American soil and a machine landed on a comet!

But while all this turmoil was happening across the globe (and outer space), the world of palm oil was also going through a dramatic shift. Today UCS released a new report, Fries, Face Wash, Forests: Scoring America’s Top Brands on Their Palm Oil Commitments, showing how the 30 companies we examined last year, plus 10 new companies, are doing just one year later.

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The more things change…

Let me start with the good news. There has been a lot of progress in the last year! Of the 30 companies we scored last year, 21 of 30 have made changes in either their palm oil sourcing commitments or in the actual palm oil they source, leading to a higher score in the scorecard. That means that due to pressure from consumers, more than two-thirds of these companies took steps to reduce deforestation in their supply chain.

The biggest successes continue to be the packaged foods and personal care sectors. While they led the way in 2014, they continued to improve in 2015. Nine of 10 packaged foods companies made improvements that increased their scores, as did eight of 10 personal care companies.

The eight companies that scored full points on our scorecard for their commitments (Nestlé, Danone, Kellogg Co., ConAgra, PepsiCo, Colgate-Palmolive, Henkel, and Procter & Gamble) all belong to either the packaged foods or personal care sector. This means that their commitments contain all the key provisions relating to forest and peat (carbon-rich swampy soils) protections as well as pledges to traceable sourcing and transparency. While there may be some work left to flesh out exactly how their commitments will be implemented and none currently source all their palm oil in a way that meets their commitments, they have key elements in place for success.

pfpcMore than this, these commitments are beginning to have ramifications across the supply chain. Seeing increased demand from their customers, traders (companies in the middle of the supply chain that buy and sell palm oil across global markets) have stepped up and begun making deforestation-free commitments as well.

At the time of the last scorecard release, the only trader to have made a significant commitment to deforestation-free and peat-free palm oil was Wilmar. Now, 13 months later, the field has changed. A number of other traders, including Cargill, Bunge, Musim Mas and others, have made commitments of varying degree, promising to decrease or entirely remove deforestation from their supply chains.

…The more they stay the same

While there were many encouraging developments in the past year, a lot of things stayed the same. Last year the fast food industry had low scores and this year, half of the companies still either don’t have policies or they aren’t strong enough to receive points. And others, such as Burger King and Starbucks, only receive limited points for joining the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil but have not taken any further action.

Meanwhile, this year we also included a new sector in our scorecard — store brands. This includes everyone from Walmart to Whole Foods to the Dollar General for their commitments on their store brand products, a.k.a. private label goods, a.k.a. generics. Thus far there has not been a great deal of public pressure on these companies to engage on the palm oil issue. And given that, it is little surprise that for the most part, this sector has a lot of work ahead of it. Six companies in this sector received a score of zero and failed to address deforestation caused by palm oil cultivation in any meaningful way.

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As you can see from the fast food and store brand scores, it is critical that we keep up the pressure on these companies. While there has been real progress in the past year, we need to transform the entire industry. Some progress is good, but until we ensure that deforestation and peatland destruction are no longer acceptable in any supply chain, we need to keep pushing.

At this time next year

For two years in a row now, we’ve provided an update on the commitments of some of America’s top companies. Within this time, we have seen movement in the right direction. In one more year, where will the industry stand?

Many of these commitments are set to begin at the end of 2015. This means that by this time next year, companies such as ConAgra, General Mills, and Kellogg Co. have pledged that all of the palm oil they use will come from deforestation-free and peat-free sources. To reach these goals, we need tremendous progress, but I’m hopeful that our story next year will be one of continued success.

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  • Pieter Kop

    Hi Lael,

    Thank you for this article. Can you help me understand PepsiCo’s score? Only two months ago a consortium of green NGOs launched an attack on PepsiCo for not having any responsible palm oil policy. What changed?

  • Richard Solomon

    Thanks for an interesting and useful post. It was surprising as well as helpful to see that Kirkland/Costco got a score of zero, for example. What alternative brands to Kirkland would you suggest? We refuse to shop at Walmart because of their labor practices, etc.

    Some of the stores/products that we use are not listed here: Lucky’s supermarket, Rite Aid pharmacy, Peet’s coffee. Do you have enough info on these stores’ products to provide some info about them?

    • Lael Goodman

      Thanks, Richard! What UCS recommends actually is not a boycott (see my colleague’s post: http://blog.ucsusa.org/palm-oil-to-boycott-or-not-to-boycott-437) but rather letting the companies know how important this issue is to you. I think it’s fantastic that you are so engaged on this issue!

      We only took a look at the companies rated in the scorecard. But you should contact those stores/brands to ask them! More pressure and/or kudos on doing the right thing is always good.

      • Richard Solomon

        Lael,

        I’d like to get more informed and even more engaged. I can see I need to stop taking my granddaughter to McDonald’s for breakfast occasionally, for example.

        I am willing to sign petitions, send emails, etc as UCS might suggest. And I’ll pass along this info to family and friends.

        THANKS for your good work!