Are Business’ Zero-Deforestation Palm Oil Pledges Being Kept? Here’s How We’ll Know

January 24, 2017
Java, Indonesia --- Sunset over tropical forest, Borobudur, Java, Indonesia --- Image by © Angelo Cavalli/Corbis
Doug Boucher
Former contributor

One important development of the past decade is the large number of corporate commitments to eliminate deforestation and exploitation from their supply chains. In response to the demands of civil society, and recognizing the critical value of their brands’ images to their bottom lines, dozen of companies have pledged to become deforestation- and exploitation-free by specific dates—often 2020 or sooner. But how can we—the consumers who buy their products and insisted that they act—know whether they’re actually doing what they promised?

The key is a two-step process: Traceability and Transparency. First, corporations need to find out how their supply chains extend all the way back to the forest land from which they get the palm oil, wood, beef and soy that they use to make the products they sell us. But second, they need to make this information public, clearly and in detail. To borrow a phrase from a quite different issue, they need to Ask, but they also need to Tell.

This is what makes a new agreement among 18 NGOs (including UCS) on Reporting Guidance for Responsible Palm an important development. Palm oil—the most widely used vegetable oil worldwide, used in literally thousands of products from baked goods to shampoo to cooking oil to industrial lubricants—comes mostly from southeast Asia. Its production is associated with deforestation, the exploitation of workers and violations of the land rights of Indigenous Peoples, and the draining and burning of peat swamps that produces large-scale emissions of global warming pollution. Many companies have made commitments to end these practices, but till now there was no agreement on how they needed to report their progress in doing it.

The new guidelines, in whose development my UCS colleague Sharon Smith was deeply involved, are notable for their clarity and their comprehensiveness. As a veteran of negotiating processes for many documents, ranging from international treaties to political coalitions to the texts of multi-author scientific papers, I’ve seen lots of ways in which these processes can lead to weak outcomes, despite the best intentions of those involved. Two pitfalls are particularly common:

  • Complicated jargon. Particularly when working on scientific and technical issues, we can easily lapse into using words that have precise meanings to experts, but are incomprehensible to the outside world.
  • “Kitchen-sink” compromises. When one side thinks that point A is crucial, and another feels the same about point B—and others about C, D, E and F—the simplest way to reach agreement can seem to be: let’s just include them all.

The 18 organizations that created the Reporting Guidance have done an admirable job in avoiding these two traps. The text is written in plain English, e.g.

Describe the spatial monitoring methodology the company uses to evaluate both fires and deforestation.

Detail: For both fires and deforestation, describe:

  • the area monitored (e.g. 50 km mill sourcing radii, expansion areas, plantations);
  • the definitions of what is being monitored (e.g. rate of fire activity, rate of tree cover loss);
  • the data sources being used;
  • the time frame(s) used to measure change, including the baseline; and
  • the percent of total mills in the supply chain falling under this monitoring methodology.

Furthermore, the guidelines include important points for transparency—both environmental and social—but nothing superfluous. The document covers what’s needed in just 16 pages, which includes a set of definitions and a two-page quantitative assessment of how many companies are already following each of the guidelines in their reporting.

Although I wasn’t involved in the negotiations leading to the guidelines, I know well how hard and exhausting it can be to reach agreement on such a document. But of course documents change nothing unless they’re implemented. In this case, that means that companies that have moved in the direction of zero-deforestation supply chains need to report publicly on their progress using this Guidance. (A few immediately announced that they will do so; e.g. Marks and Spencer, which said that “This document guides companies towards reporting that is most meaningful and material to a wide range of stakeholders and contributes towards our collective goal of making palm oil production sustainable and deforestation free.”

We now need to see similar statements from those corporations that haven’t yet done adequate reporting on how they are complying with their announced policies—e.g. McDonald’s, Procter & Gamble, General Mills, ConAgra, Krispy Kreme, Tim Hortons and Yum! Brands. It’s time to be transparent about how you’re ending deforestation from what you sell us.