Manufacturers must continue the conversation around palm oil to address customer concerns.

Monique van Wijnbergen, Sustainability and Corporate Communication Director

March 25, 2019

7 Min Read
Palm oil fruit on a production line
Palm Done Right

During Natural Products Expo West in Anaheim earlier this month, we had many conversations about the future of palm oil. The “no palm” movement seems to be getting traction, especially among conscious consumers. As a result, a growing group of manufacturers is shying away from using palm oil in their products, reluctant to face backlash or answer concerns from their customers. To address these concerns, manufacturers would need to demonstrate palm oil’s great functional benefits to product quality and performance, and as a healthy alternative to really harmful trans fats.

Buy certified organic palm oil

Without most people knowing about it, palm oil has become part of their lives as an almost invisible ingredient in the products they use from the moment they get up in the morning until the moment they go to bed in the evening. But, even in the organic and natural products industry, only a few manufacturing companies source only organic and sustainable palm oil for their products. With demand for organic products flourishing as consumers seek out nutritious and clean food for their health and for the environment, the time is ripe for manufacturers to source only organic product ingredients, including palm oil-based ingredients.

Buyers often don’t want to pay enough for what it takes to do palm right. Price is a barrier. At the consumer level, however, additional costs are often minor. A consumer is hardly going to feel the cost impact of moving from a conventional palm oil-based ingredient to its organic alternative. However, the choice for organic will have a tremendous positive impact on the environment and the communities where the palm was grown.

Related:What’s worse than palm oil? Saying 'no' to it

Take a close look at the palm oil you are currently using. Has it been produced using organic practices? Now is the time to clean up your supply chain.

Know your sources

The majority of palm oil imported into the U.S. comes from unknown sources. Mostly produced in huge monocrop plantations or by the millions of smallholder farmers who deliver their fruit anonymously to large-scale mills, from where crude palm oil or its fractions and derivates find its way to markets in bulk for further processing. Without anyone knowing exactly where and how it was produced. This anonymity will keep current destructive practices in place.

Thorough mapping of palm oil supply chains is an exercise that a growing number of brand manufacturers are undertaking. It is a vital step for identifying high-risk sources and for helping ensure palm oil is organic, deforestation-free, wildlife friendly, fair and social.

Related:The biggest misunderstandings about palm oil

Investigate and map your supply chain from the grower to the finished product. Transition your current anonymous sourcing, or mass balance sourcing model, to an identity preserved model in which palm oil from a single identifiable certified source is kept separately from destructive palm oil. This is the only way to ensure that you receive what you believe you are buying.

Make commitments and stick to them

It all starts with commitments and sticking to those commitments. While many companies have put in place palm oil policies, and sometimes even voiced public commitments, action and implementation have often been lacking. Without proper action it is highly unlikely that organic, no-deforestation and no-exploitation pledges will be met.

Transitioning to 100 percent organic sourcing might not be realized overnight. If you are sourcing only a small volume of palm-based ingredients, you may be able to transition fast. If you’re a big user of palm oil, this fast transition might not be possible. You may want to consider converting one product line first, or even one SKU at the time, to make sure enough organic palm oil is available to live up to your commitments. Mars Inc. has shown that this strategy works, when they pledged publicly to source 100 percent sustainable cocoa by 2025. Mars converted product line by product line, country by country to live up to its promise and to prevent any shortages against their commitments.  

It’s time to draw the line and raise the ambition level. Be bold and make public and time-bound commitments to purchasing 100 percent organic and fully traceable palm oil. Whether you are a brand manufacturer or retailer, your commitments, policies and actions are going to make a difference. You are sending a message to upstream players that you want to see current practices changed and that you take forest and wildlife habitat protection and the rights of workers and communities seriously.

Get involved

To scale up organic production we need all hands on deck and the active participation of all supply chain actors involved. Taking commitments seriously requires buyers of palm oil, brand manufacturers and retailers, to get more involved on the ground to ensure that their suppliers are not linked to deforestation, wildlife habitat loss and worker rights abuses.

Over the years we have seen an increase in the involvement of manufacturers and retailers in different types of palm oil production projects. We saw, for instance, the support of farmers moving toward better agricultural practices and certification, or their transition to organic palm farming methods. Here are several additional examples:

  • Multinational brand manufacturer Henkel has initiated smallholder projects in several palm producing countries.

  • Swiss retailer COOP launched a multi-year research project on the sustainability of organic palm oil aimed at further optimizing organic palm cultivation and a better integration of farmer cooperatives in the value chain.

  • Organic soap and personal care products manufacturer Dr. Bronner’s set up its own organic and fair trade palm production network in Ghana, in their quest to find a sustainable and socially responsible source for their palm oil that did not cause new deforestation, endanger wildlife habitats or impoverish communities—Serendipalm in Ghana.

Take an active interest in the farmer communities and production landscapes where the palm fruit for your ingredients is produced. A first step will be to visit the regions where your palm is produced, to meet the farmers and see with your own eyes how palm is grown and how workers are treated. Another step will be to actively support the farmers who are working hard to do palm right, through projects supporting organic practices, replanting, education or healthcare projects, or environmental projects.

Educate and engage your customers

With palm oil under a microscope these days and too much simplified reasoning around the complex challenges facing palm oil, we need to jointly educate and engage consumers about the positive sides of palm oil. Most consumers will not actively research the topic of palm oil; they don’t have the time or they are unaware that palm oil-based ingredients are in products they use throughout the day. Many manufacturers would rather not communicate actively about their palm oil use as they reason it will do more damage than good. However, we need to bite the bullet and engage consumers around the topic of palm oil. This is the only way to make them understand that the shift towards “no palm” products is more harmful than media recently suggests.

In 2016, Natural Habitats created a campaign and movement to prove that palm oil can be grown for good. To illustrate that “done right” palm oil can bring significant positive impact to the farming communities and production landscapes. We call this movement Palm Done Right™, and it is bringing together brand manufacturers, retailers and consumers to increase awareness around the environmental and social benefits of palm grown organically, working with independent farmers and the ethical treatment of farm and plantation workers. Last year, we organized the first Palm Done Right Month to highlight brands using organic palm oil in the grocery stores of Palm Done Right retail partners.

Palm Done Right Month is an annual event every September with an increasing number of participating partners and grocery stores. We received very positive feedback from shoppers who were not aware of the pervasive presence of palm oil in their products, never realizing how they can exercise their influence by voting for good practices through their purchasing decisions every day, choosing brands that take their sourcing responsibilities seriously.

Talk to your customers about palm oil. Explain why you use it and how it benefits product quality, farming communities, and, when done right, the environment.  And motivate them to dig deeper than the media headlines. Show consumers how their daily shopping decisions can lead to positive change. Maximize transparency for your customers, so they are confident that their spending will lead to positive impact.

In our next article we will highlight the positive work that is being done in the field, including steps to explore regenerative agriculture in palm production. So, stay tuned.

This is the third article in a four-part series designed to demystify the complex topic of palm oil and help individuals separate fact from fiction, to make choices that are good for people and the planet. Monique van Wijnbergen, Natural Habitat’s sustainability and corporate communications director, is a company spokesperson for Palm Done Right, an international campaign to raise awareness around the positive ripple effects that happen when palm oil is grown for good.

About the Author(s)

Monique van Wijnbergen

Sustainability and Corporate Communication Director, Natural Habitats Group

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