Cleanup on Aisle 8: Why Supermarkets and Other Retail Stores Need to Clean Up Their Palm Oil

September 14, 2015
Lael Goodman
Former contributor

9/15/2015 Update: Since the publication of this blog, Costco has updated their palm oil commitment. Their commitment now includes specific language around the protection of forests and goes beyond a RSPO-certified commitment. However, the timeline for compliance has been pushed to 2021. Importantly, Costco has also committed to no-burn policies and some level of traceability, though they do not specify if this traceability is to the plantation level.

If you are a frequent or even occasional reader of this blog, you may have begun to suspect that I work for a nonprofit. While this means I get to do meaningful work and have gotten some amazing travel opportunities, let’s just say I’m not making a Wall Street salary. As a consequence, I’m always looking for ways to save money. Some of my favorite ways include saving a bus fare each day that I bike to work instead of taking the metro, using bags of dried beans instead of canned, and buying store brand products over name brand.

Though there are some brands to which I’ll always stay true, between two similar products, I’ll generally choose the cheaper version which tends to be the store brand. And I’m not the only one making that choice. According to the nonprofit association Private Label Manufacturers Association, in large supermarkets one out of every four products sold is a store brand.

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Store brand products also contain palm oil – and too few supermarkets and retailers have committed to ensuring their supplies are deforestation and peat-free.

Store brands vs. name brands

Store brands palm oil commitment score rankings as of April 2015. In that last two weeks, both Target and Costco have released commitments that would alter their scores for the better.

Store brands palm oil commitment score rankings as of April 2015. In that last two weeks, both Target and Costco have released commitments that would alter their scores for the better.

As an enthusiastic amateur but not a professional food taster, there are many products where I am unable to tell the difference between the brand name and store brand product. This is not actually all that surprising—when comparing the ingredients and nutrition facts on two different labels, the two are often very similar.

Like their name brand counterparts, the store brand versions of products are also likely to contain palm oil, the most commonly used vegetable oil that has been linked to dramatic deforestation in Southeast Asia.  Thus far, we have seen few commitments from supermarkets and large retailers to ensure that their store brand products use only deforestation and peat-free palm oil. In fact, compared with the leading packaged foods and personal care companies, retailers are woefully behind.

Earlier this year, UCS assessed the palm oil sourcing policies of 40 different companies, and in that report, we also took a look at large retailers’ store brands for the first time. Only one company, Safeway, had a commitment that was close to being on par with name brands in the industry.

That means that most of the cheaper, store branded products that people  use every day may be linked to deforestation, habitat destruction, global warming pollution, and unhealthy haze.

Two steps forward, one step back

There are some signs that retailers are beginning to take notice of the links between palm oil and deforestation. In just the last couple of weeks, two retailers who ranked among the lowest in our spring assessment, Target (with store brands Archer Farms, Simply Balanced, Market Pantry, up & up) and Costco (with store brand Kirkland Signature), have made new palm oil commitments for their own brand products.

For Target, these steps include most impressively, a near-term timeline. By 2018, Target states that all the palm oil it uses will be traceable and sustainably sourced, effectively committing to end the use of palm oil causing deforestation or new plantations on peat soils. As referenced at the beginning of this piece, Costco updated its commitment since the publication of this blog.

However, it seems that most retail companies have yet to commit to what is becoming the norm for name brand businesses. In particular, Target’s commitments omit banning the use of fire to clear land or for replanting. And if sourcing from current oil palm plantations on peatlands, Target’s commitment fails to explicitly require that these plantations use best management practices.

We are increasingly seeing the negative effects of just such oversights. Forest fires are raging in Southeast Asia, driven partly by the unsustainable production of palm oil and other agricultural commodities on peat soils and the use of fire to clear land. These fires blaze year after year, harming the health of millions of Southeast Asians and yet still, carbon-rich peatlands are becoming agricultural fields. Unless companies specifically set standards to prevent this kind of environmental exploitation, experience shows that these practices are likely to continue.

Not such a bargain

I know that individuals are not the only ones looking to cut costs. Much as I sometimes choose store brand products, it is cheaper for plantation companies to clear the land with fire rather than with machines. However, cheaper is only better if the two options are practically indistinguishable. And while the end result may taste the same, if the method of production includes risking the lives of millions of people, destroying the habitat of endangered species, and polluting our atmosphere, then that great bargain is really a raw deal.