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Fast food companies are laggards on palm oil sourcing safeguards

Palm oil infographic.

Fast food companies are lagging behind other consumer products companies in efforts to establish policies that favor deforestation-free and conflict-free palm oil, finds a new assessment published by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), an advocacy group.

The report, titled “Donuts, Deodorant, Deforestation: Scoring America’s Top Brands on Their Palm Oil Commitments“, looked at palm oil sourcing policies of 30 of the largest fast food, personal care, and packaged food corporations in the United States. It found leadership by a handful of firms, including Mondelēz, Nestlé, Unilever, Kellogg’s, L’Oréal and Reckitt Benckiser. In comparison, only two fast food companies, McDonald’s and Subway, received any points under UCS’s scoring system, but their commitments are “vague and outdated”.

“The fast food sector scored the worst by far,” said UCS.

The findings suggest that companies such as Burger King, Dairy Queen, Dunkin’ Donuts, Starbucks, Wendy’s Estee Lauder, Kraft, Clorox, and Pepsico could become the next targets in activist campaigns to clean up the palm oil industry, which has been linked to large-scale destruction of rainforests and peatlands across Indonesia and Malaysia. Environmental groups believe that sourcing policies established by major buyers like these have the best chance of pressuring palm oil producers, leading to better practices and stepped-up enforcement of environmental laws in places like Sumatra and Borneo, where oil palm plantations are rapidly expanding.

“Multinational companies really hold the world’s tropical forests in their hands,” Calen May-Tobin, lead analyst for UCS’s Tropical Forest and Climate Initiative, said in a statement. “If these companies demand deforestation-free, peat-free palm oil, the producers on the ground would be forced to change their palm oil practices.”

Already green groups have chalked up several major victories in their campaigns. Two of the world’s largest palm oil producers, Golden-Agri Resources and Wilmar, have recently established policies barring palm oil produced via deforestation, conversion of peatlands, and social conflict from their supply chains. The companies were pushed by sourcing standards set by Unilever and Nestle, among others. Yet nearly half of the world’s palm oil is still produced without provisions to avoid deforestation. Major producers like Musim Mas and KLK are primary targets for groups like Greenpeace, the Rainforest Action Network, and UCS.

Oil palm expansion in Malaysia, Indonesia, and Papua New Guinea has claimed some 3.5 million hectares of forests during the past 20 years, including key habitat for endangered species like orangutans, rhinos, pygmy elephants, and tigers. Deforestation and peatlands degradation have also released millions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere and increased the vulnerability of vast areas to fires.

Deforestation for oil palm development in Riau Province, Sumatra, Indonesia
Deforestation for oil palm development in Riau Province, Sumatra, Indonesia

CITATION: Calen May-Tobin and Lael Goodman. Donuts, Deodorant, Deforestation: Scoring America’s Top Brands on Their Palm Oil Commitments. Union of Concerned Scientists. March 2014

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