Palm Oil and the Art of Procrastination

May 20, 2015 | 11:41 am
Lael Goodman
Former contributor

“Procrastinate now, don’t put it off.”  – Ellen DeGeneres

Procrastination is a funny thing. While procrastination is theoretically acknowledged to be negative, people seem to delight in the concept. The internet is full of commentary on procrastination from web comics to a classification system to funny sayings. In fact, I bet a number of you just might be reading this blog to procrastinate some other work – am I right?!

And some of the time I’m on board. I’ve learned a whole lot of interesting stuff over the years during my time spent procrastinating, and the major downsides have been pulling an occasional all-nighter or skipping lunch. As long as the deadline is met, I try not to hold myself accountable for how it got done.

But procrastination is not always so innocuous; for example, putting off going to the doctor if one has a serious illness can have some pretty severe consequences. Additionally, for larger undertakings or projects, sometimes it is impossible to meet a deadline without consistent work towards your goal, sans procrastination. In terms of implementation of deforestation-free commitments, there is no room for procrastination.

“You may delay, but time will not.” – Benjamin Franklin

The timelines for implementation of the recent spate of deforestation-free and peat-free palm oil and other commodity commitments vary widely. Some are set to be fully implemented in 2015, but others don’t go into effect until later than 2020. While here at UCS we cheer each time a company takes the step to promise that in the future it will be deforestation-free, it isn’t until these commitments are implemented that the difference is really made.

In the meantime, every year, approximately 3 billion tons of carbon dioxide are released to the atmosphere as a result of tropical deforestation, or about 10 percent of the world’s total emissions.

“…the best possible way to prepare for tomorrow is to concentrate with all your intelligence, all your enthusiasm, on doing today’s work superbly today. That is the only possible way you can prepare for the future.” – Dale Carnegie

The future is uncertain and no one can really predict with full accuracy by what date the supply of deforestation-free palm oil on the market will be enough to meet the demands of all these new commitments. So companies are pledging to have deforestation-free palm oil by a range of different dates. Some of the earliest deadlines originate from the packaged foods sector, including Kellogg’s, General Mills, and ConAgra who have committed to sourcing 100 percent deforestation and peat-free palm oil by the end of 2015. In general companies using a greater number of palm oil derivatives have a more challenging task and have later timelines. For example many personal care companies’ commitments, such as those of Colgate, Procter & Gamble, and L’Oréal, are set to be fully implemented by 2020.

Yet some companies, such as Heinz (though its recent merger with Kraft may alter the timeline), have timelines that are less ambitious than their peers for no apparent reason. These later dates are particularly jarring in light of the recent commitments by many of the major palm oil traders (companies in the middle of the supply chain) to bring to market a supply of palm oil that meets the criteria that companies are asking for. The largest palm oil trader in the world, Wilmar, expects to have deforestation-free and peat-free palm oil on the market by the end of 2015. So why would a company truly committed to deforestation-free commodities wait until 2017 or 2018 to begin using it?

So we must hold companies accountable for swiftly moving forward to end commodity-driven deforestation and setting ambitious target dates for full implementation. We know that with high expectations, great things can be achieved.


In 1961 President John F. Kennedy set an ambitious goal for the space program, to land on the moon by the end of the century. At the time, getting to the moon seemed overwhelming at the time, but America achieved this goal ahead of schedule. Similarly, companies using palm oil should set ambitious targets and strive to achieve them. Photo: NASA

In August of 2014, governments, 30 of the world’s largest companies and more than 50 other organizations, including the Union of Concerned Scientists, signed onto the New York Declaration on Forests. This declaration aims to end global deforestation by 2030 and eliminate commodity- based deforestation including palm oil, soy, paper, and beef by 2020.

Many of the companies we ranked in our Palm Oil Scorecard signed onto this declaration, including Danone, General Mills, Kao, Kellogg’s, L’Oréal, McDonald’s, Mondelēz, Nestlé, Procter and Gamble, Unilever, and Walmart. However, some of these companies have palm oil commitments that are not in line with their commitment in the New York Declaration. Kao, McDonald’s, Mondelēz, and Walmart all have palm oil commitments that either do not cover all of their palm oil, do not fully protect forests and peatlands, or are not set to be fulfilled by 2020.

Right now the world is watching McDonald’s. Recently McDonald’s mostly followed through on its New York Declaration on Forests commitment and outlined a plan to remove deforestation from all parts of its operations and starts with priority products including beef, fiber-based packaging, coffee, palm oil and poultry. The only catch is that the deadline for implementation is currently set at 2030, a full 10 years later than what McDonald’s agreed to for beef, palm oil, soy and paper in the Declaration.  Later this year McDonald’s will release a plan outlining the specifics of its palm oil commitment and I’m expecting to see that their timeline shows that they will be sourcing deforestation-free palm oil by and hopefully before 2020.

Because why procrastinate ending deforestation when you can end it today?