Don't be fooled - 'sustainable' palm oil is a myth

Posted by jamie - 28 November 2007 at 6:17pm - Comments

Last week, Sainsbury's announced that it aims to use only sustainable palm oil in its own-brand products. Sounds great, and with Asda having made a similar announcement earlier this year, you might think supermarkets will soon be stocking only those palm oil products that weren't helping to cause the indiscriminate destruction of forests in places like Indonesia. The truth is that, while both companies score top marks for excellent intentions, delivery is going to be decidedly tricky as there is currently no credible way of telling whether palm oil is 'sustainable' or not.

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) - the industry-led consortium of which Asda and Sainsbury's are members - met in Malaysia last week to adopt their global standards for what constitutes sustainable palm oil. Their goal is to have a certification scheme that will allow products to carry an RSPO logo if the palm oil meets certain environmental and social justice criteria, rather like the one run by the Forest Stewardship Council for timber and paper.

We've pointed out the current flaws in the RSPO system before and the good news is that since then they haven't been weakened; unfortunately, they haven't been tightened up either. For instance, there's little to stop companies having certain parts of their operations certified by the RSPO while they continue to convert rainforests and peatlands into oil palm plantations elsewhere, giving them a green fig leaf to cover up their terrible environmental standards.

So the ambitions of Sainsbury's are a good step forward as they plan to get their palm oil from Colombia instead of South East Asia, but it will still be the RSPO providing the rubber stamp of sustainability. With RSPO-labelled products appearing in a supermarket near you from sometime next year, there'll still be no way to tell good palm oil from bad.

So to put more pressure on palm oil companies, at the weekend not one but two shipments of palm oil were blocked from coming into European ports by Greenpeace teams. On Friday, a tanker carrying 10,000 tonnes of the stuff from Indonesia - supplied by a company connected to trashing forests and peatlands - was prevented from unloading in Rotterdam.

On Sunday another 10,000 tonnes were stopped from entering Porvoo in Finland. This shipment was heading for the world's first large-scale production facility for biodiesel made with palm oil and the owners, Neste Oil, wants to become the leading producer of 'renewable diesel'. There are photos from the action on Greenpeace Finland's Flickr profile.

We'll be taking similar steps to stop the destruction of Indonesia's forests and peatlands in the near future - watch this space.

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