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A new world?: Social media protest against Nestle may have longstanding ramifications

Protest could change the palm oil industry and wake the world up to the power of ‘social media’.

The online protest over Nestle’s use of palm oil linked to deforestation in Indonesia continues unabated over the weekend. One only needed to check-in on the Nestle’s Facebook fan page to see that anger and frustration over the company’s palm oil sourcing policies, as well as its attempts to censor a Greenpeace video (and comments online), has sparked a social media protest that is noteworthy for its vehemence, its length, and its bringing to light the issue of palm oil and deforestation to a broader public.

While, the ramifications of this protest—and Nestle’s inability to handle the situation—will not be completely known for awhile, it could have widespread implications for the palm oil industry (and companies sourcing them). But on a bigger scale, the protest being undertaken on so-called ‘social media’ sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and Care2, is an indication of the changing way organizations and individuals are showing their displeasure to giant multi-billion dollar corporations.

The palm oil debate widens and intensifies

Deforestation for a new oil palm plantation at the edge of Gunung Leuser National Park on the island of Sumatra in Indonesia. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

While the protest is targeting Nestle, it may have ramification far behind the candy-giant. After this week any company sourcing palm oil from areas of the world—such as Malaysia and Indonesia—where deforestation is still rampant and species like orangutans are on the edge of extinction, may want to double-check (and triple-check) the reputation of their suppliers. Better yet, they may want to shell-out a bit more for sustainable palm oil, since it may actually save them money (and face) in the long run.

Already, a number of western companies have been dropping suppliers of palm oil that have links to illegal deforestation. Following a BBC documentary on palm oil, giant food and cosmetics-manufacturer Unilever dropped Duta Palma and PT Smart; prior to this Unilever dropped Sinar Mas (the supplier that got Nestle in hot water). Last year, the World Bank suspended lending to all oil palm plantation projects, after one of its recipients, the Wilmar Group, was found to be environmentally irresponsible. Cadbury New Zealand dumped palm oil altogether after consumer complaints.

While these actions show that some companies are sensitive to the palm oil-debate, this new protest is bringing the issue to a far wider audience, likely putting additional pressure on corporations still sourcing palm oil from environmentally-suspect sources, such as General Mills which was recently the target of a protest by the Rainforest Action Network (RAN). It may also spike demand for sustainable palm oil.

At first, sustainable palm oil, overseen by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) had difficulty finding a market since it is more expensive than unsustainable palm oil and companies (as well as consumers) didn’t want to foot the bill. But by February of this year the market for sustainable palm and its production were nearly evenly matched.

The orangutan has become the symbol of the protest against unsustainable palm oil. The Sumatran orangutan, pictured here, is Critically Endangered, largely due to habitat loss. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

Now, though the outlook for sustainable palm oil from a business-angle may be far brighter. The continuing negative press may push more companies than ever to decide that it is very much in their interest to pay a little extra for sustainable sources rather than face the prospect of becoming another Nestle. Sustainable palm oil may suddenly see its demand far outshoot its production, at least in the near term.

Yet even sustainable palm oil, courtesy of the RSPO, has many detractors, especially as some RSPO members allegedly continue to clear high conservation value forests for monoculture plantations. For its part, RSPO says it continues to work on its certification process.

Social Media and Big Business

Another possible outcome of this protest: social media protests may have come of age. Even five years ago a protest of this scale on ‘social media’ sites—mostly on Facebook and Twitter, but also appearing on Care2 and Reddit—would not have been possible, but this protest proves that these sites can have a big impact. Where else can individuals instantly criticize multi-billion dollar corporations to their collective face, and then invite hundreds (maybe even thousands) of their acquaintances to take up the cause?

Figure 1: Extent of Deforestation in Borneo 1950-2005, Projection to 2020. The island of Borneo is split between Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei.

There is no question that social media sites have taken a big chunk out of mainstream media sources in providing news and conversation-topics to an increasingly plugged-in public. Places like Reddit and Digg are becoming the new front-page for many news-junkies who thrive on variety. Especially for younger generations, social media—not Fox News or CNN or the NY Times—is becoming the place where one catches-up on news, spreads information, and sounds their opinions. In this case, however, the opinions aren’t between friends, but between thousands of individuals and one big corporation.

While it’s clear that Nestle has been taken aback by the scale and vehemence of the protest, it’s just as clear that there are plenty of individuals out there who are simply fed-up with the actions of many multinational corporations, which they view as spoiling the environment for profit, stomping on human rights, exploiting the poor, and turning a deaf ear to any criticism.

In fact, while the protest has focused on Nestle’s impact on rainforests in Indonesia, it has also tacked on a list of other abuses by the food-giant. Social-media users have unearthed a multitude of skeletons in Nestle’s closest: aggressive marketing of baby formula to mothers in the developing world causing malnutrition and mortality; illegal extraction of groundwater in Brazil for Nestle company, Perrier; child labor abuses in Ghana for the production of chocolate; aggressive labor busting, including in Colombia where eight unionizing Nestle employees were assassinated, though there is no link to the company for the killings; and continuing to promote unhealthy foods around the world.

Indonesia has some of the world’s most biodiverse rainforests, sporting well-known species like orangutans, tigers, elephants, komodo dragons, and rhinos. But most of Indonesia’s species are tiny like this red grasshawk dragonfly. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

The online protest against Nestle didn’t really take off until after the company pushed YouTube to remove a clever video from Greenpeace criticizing the company, citing copyright infringement. While the protest may owe much of its beginning to Nestle’s own draconian measures, including callous comments from a moderator on its Facebook page, it will be doubly interesting to see what Greenpeace, and other activist organization, learn from the uproar. While Greenpeace, one of the savviest and most effective activist organizations out there, has long used social media to spread information about its campaigns, it is not always easy to get people physically involved in an issue. Social media, however, allows for little long-term commitment and a chance to reach companies directly. I bet that Greenpeace and others will increasingly view online media as the most important tool to reach long ambivalent and distant corporations.

But as one commentator said on Nestle’s Facebook page today, this protest has gone beyond Greenpeace to become ‘grassroots’. That begs the questions: could social media be the new face of effective grassroots activism in an increasingly interconnected and information-heavy world?

Maybe—if this protest works. Of course, much depends on the next few days. Will the campaign against Nestle continue across the social-media sphere, which is nothing if not fickle? Will the story have legs with news sources? Will consumers threatening to boycott follow-through? Will Nestle cave in or continue its statement that it will switch over to sustainable sources…in 2015?

But, for individual protestors the question is really something far deeper: does our voice matter? Collectively, on the Internet, can we make the world a better place?

Whatever happens next, there is no doubt that we are in uncharted territory.

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(03/19/2010) In a bold online video, the environmental group Greenpeace cleverly links candy-giant Nestle to oil palm-related deforestation and the deaths of orangutans. Cleary angered over the video, Nestle struck back by having it banned from YouTube and replaced with this statement: “This video is no longer available due to a copyright claim by Société des Produits Nestlé S.A.” However Nestle’s reaction to the video only spread it far and wide (see the ad below): social network sites like Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit were all flooded with the ad as well as rising criticism against Nestle—one of the world’s largest food producers—including calls for boycotts.

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