Prior to our discussions in class, I honestly had no idea just how controversial this issue really was. I had a vague idea that it was used in many of our products, but not nearly as much as it actually is. Widespread, and seemingly eco-friendly, the high demand has turned the production of this commodity into a serious threat for many species habitats. What really struck me about palm oil is that there does exist the means to produce it sustainably, even at a high volume. It all comes down to the economic benefits versus the environmental downsides. In class we talked about the RSPO certification, but what interested me were the many flaws that were pointed out. Although it seemed like finally there would be a solution and for once the possibility of a sustainable product, multi-million corporations have succeeded in over exploiting places like Indonesia and Malaysia, two of its highest producers. In this article from The Guardian, journalist Oliver Balch goes straight to the security general to discuss the factors that are preventing RSPO certification from spreading faster.
The Roundtable was enacted about a decade ago, so what is making progress so slow? Security general Darrel Webber narrowed it down to roughly three categories: slow pace of change, laggard buyers, and consumer pressure. The image below illustrates the different groups involved with getting sustainable palm oil to take off. Corporations as a rule, do not like to change their products. “Having to pass everything via consensus generally means setting the bar low to keep everyone on board” says Webber of getting corporations to agree on regulations for production. There is also the fact that large scale companies are always looking for more ways to make money so even with the certification they would be hard pressed to stop expanding and clear cutting forests.
Laggard buyers and consumer pressure both influence each other, through supply and demand. “Sustainable palm oil is still not a commodity; it’s a niche” admits Webber; also calling out these buyers as being “lukewarm towards certification”. Consumer demand may not be that important to us here in America, but in the countries closer to the production of oil, it could have a huge impact on sustainably harvested products. With government and citizen support of RSPO palm oil, the demand will cause more large scale companies to follow the rules. Smaller, local companies have already jumped on board, but it is the world wide ones that harm the environment the most.
There is some hope however. As of this year according to an article from ClimateProgress, Kellog brand joines other companies such as Hersheys and Nestle to make a commitment to go deforestation free. Also among them is Wilmar, which is the worlds largest palm oil trader, “control[ing] 45 percent of the global supply in palm oil” (Phillips). It’s slow progress, but what really impacts the pace of change are consumers primarily in India and China. With their support, more big companies will have to provide these kinds of sustainable goods. Hopefully, this is one of the few instances where people realize their responsibility to the environment before its too late.