A rescued baby male Sumatran orangutan, at the quarantine centre of Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme where orangutans rescued from palm oil plantations, poachers and pet owners undergo rehabilitation before they are reintroduced into the forests. (Photo: ROMEO GACAD/AFP/Getty Images)

Sustainable palm oil is real. Now companies need to be forced to use it

Efforts to rein in the damaging effects of palm oil production have crept along over the years. At times, things have seemed pretty hopeless. But those fighting from the inside insist it can be done, and that NZ must be part of the solution.

Auckland Zoo’s Amy Robbins knows first-hand how hard it is to isolate “bad palm oil”.

Robbins, the zoo’s primate team leader, has spent years working towards cleaning up the industry which supplies ingredients to more than half of the products on supermarket shelves.

Her love for orangutans – the “poster-child” for the destruction caused by palm oil plantation and production – first brought her to the coalface of the problem in Indonesia nearly 20 years ago.

“I’ve worked with a number of orangutans which have been deliberately shot in the eye and made blind because they’re seen as a pest or they’re seen to be raiding someone’s palm oil plantation,” Robbins says.

“I’ve worked with babies who have come in with their noses hacked off, or they’ve caught meningitis and now have a permanent brain injury because they’ve been kept as someone’s pet.”

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There’s no way for animals in this condition to ever go back into the wild; they’ve had their natural state of being robbed for them.

For communities reliant on work from palm oil plantations, it’s just as devastating.

“I’ve become friends with these communities that have been forced to work in palm oil for a few dollars a day,” Robbins says. “It’s really hard labour, and the poverty in these forest-edge communities is incredible and there really are no other alternatives.”

“People in those communities tell me all the time they don’t want to, and they know it’s bad for the environment, but there are no other alternatives for employment in that area.”

Auckland Zoo’s Amy Robbins believes a sustainable palm oil industry is possible, one step at a time. (Image: Supplied)

But, there have been developments, Robbins says, and slowly – project by project – changes are filtering through. Her work across a number of conservation projects in Indonesia has led to “wins” and breakthroughs over the years, such as awareness raised through the country’s growing eco-tourism industry, and supporting workers and families into employment outside of palm oil production.

She is particularly proud of the impact The Sumatran Ranger Project has had. The conservation initiative, which Robbins set up and Auckland Zoo helps fund, is focused on protection of the Leuser ecosystem.

“We employ a team of rangers to patrol the buffer zone where there is a lot of palm oil. They’re helping to reduce human-wildlife conflict and wildlife crime, and many of them used to be employed in palm oil or were illegal poachers and loggers.”

At home, Robbins is an integral part of Auckland Zoo’s campaign advocating for mandatory labelling of palm oil in products. Currently, it’s often listed indiscriminately as “vegetable oil” on ingredient labels. That’s not good enough because it makes it difficult for consumers to support products from companies which are using, or trying to use, sustainably produced palm oil, she says.

Organisations like the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) also provide a certification process which helps companies show how transparent and sustainable its palm oil supply chain is. However, as Robbins points out, without the initial step of palm oil labelling on products consumers don’t have the choice to seek out products and companies using sustainable palm oil in the first place.

A rescued baby orangutan (Photo credit: ROMEO GACAD/AFP/Getty Images).

Discussions with Food Standards Australia New Zealand around mandatory labelling are ongoing, she says. Notably, a Consumer NZ poll showed nearly 70% of people were in favour of mandatory labelling last year. Independent polling at the peak of the Auckland Zoo’s campaign in 2017 placed this figure at 92%. And while labelling conversations progress, it is worth noting that it’s not within the FSANZ mandate to review the environmental impact of products. For now, Robbins is encouraging consumers to become more vigilant around their supermarket shopping.

“People should support companies that are trying to make a difference, ones that are using sustainable palm oil and that have the RSPO [Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil] logo on their products. Call the manufacturers and ask them where they source their palm oil from and if they can show that they are a member of RSPO, that’s good,” Robbins says.

She also recommends the World Wildlife Fund’s scorecard tool for brands. It rates companies based on the sustainability of the palm oil it is using.

“While it doesn’t always cover the products that we have in New Zealand, often you can see if it’s a parent company of a product you’re using and get information on its palm oil supply chain in that way.”

It’s also important to understand that boycotting palm oil could be detrimental to efforts to clean up the industry.

“[Auckland Zoo] first started a campaign in the early to mid-2000s called Don’t Palm Us Off. Back then, the focus was really to boycott palm oil, stop using palm oil and reduce your use of palm oil.

“However, there’s been a lot of development and a lot of research done in that industry over the past 10 to 15 years, and it’s widely documented that a boycott would have the opposite effect, or have no effect at all on the demand for palm oil.

“That is because the human population is increasing and the demand for edible vegetable oils, particularly one that is as versatile and ubiquitous as palm oil, is high – there really is nothing else that compares,” she says.

The Auckland Zoo has changed its position to recognise a hardline boycott of palm oil isn’t an ultimately positive place. It now supports the use of sustainably sourced palm oil.

A view of land cleared for palm oil plantation in the habitat of Sumatran orangutan (Photo: Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images)

Grant Rosoman, a senior advisor at Greenpeace International whose area of expertise is deforestation solutions, backs the move to mandatory labelling and emphasises the importance of having consumers push for positive change in the industry.

While the RSPO process isn’t perfect, it underwent a review last year and is an important component of securing clean supply chains in the palm oil industry, he says.

What we find is that, more or less, all the large brands still have deforestation mixed in their supply chain – whether it’s Unilever, Nestle or Mondelez. All of these major global brands, which provide most of the homecare products, personal care products, or processed food products from the supermarket, have palm oil or pieces of palm oil in them.

“Those companies made commitments that they would get deforestation out of their supply chain by 2020. It’s very clear they’re going to miss that target by a long way. They’ve still got a lot of work to do in their supply chain.”

However, despite next year’s missed milestones, it’s important to understand that there are companies which are taking the commitment to clean palm oil seriously, Rosoman says.

Grant Rosoman at work in Borneo, Indonesia (Image: Ulet Ifansasti).

He has worked with Ecostore to ensure the palm oil in its products is sustainable. On a larger scale, chocolate makers Ferrero “have a pretty good, clean supply chain”. The company is a member of the Palm Oil Innovation Group, which is one of the more progressive organisations focused on preventing further deforestation, Rosoman says.

“Yes, there’s still value in supporting companies on the way towards progress and doing quite well,” Rosoman says.

“It’s also better to buy RSPO than not RSPO. And the simple thing is to buy locally produced products, buy less processed products and buy more natural products that have less of these [palm oil] derivatives – it’s both better for you and you’ll have fewer issues with palm oil.”

And it’s becoming a make or break for some companies on which suppliers they use. In 2016 the Warehouse Group implemented a sustainable palm oil purchasing policy that gave their suppliers three years to determine the presence of palm oil and source it sustainably. Suppliers unable to do so in the time frame would be excluded from their product range.

But moving to sustainable palm oil is only the beginning of the journey.

“Efforts to source sustainable palm oil will all be for nothing if we are unable to slow the growth of consumption,” says Kevin Buley, Auckland Zoo’s director.

“Sustainably sourced palm oil is great, eating fresh and buying local, and not requiring palm oil at all, is even better.”

This content was created in paid partnership with Auckland Zoo. Learn more about our partnerships here.

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