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Pressure unrelenting on palm oil

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Activists continue to target palm oil’s corporate customers, with forced labour risks now in the mix

There has been increasing evidence through 2016 that at least some companies are taking deforestation risks seriously – with hundreds of corporate pledges more than 70% of the way towards completion, on average, according to Forest Trends. But as the year draws to a close, palm oil, the forest commodity that everybody loves to hate, is very much still on the activist radar.

Amnesty International’s examination of the practices within the supply chain of Wilmar, the world’s biggest palm oil trader, is on the face of it damning to say the least. Interviews with 120 workers within the company’s plantations found evidence of forced labour, dangerous working conditions and child labour.

Africa expansion

Meanwhile, Mighty’s exposé of Olam’s operations in Africa suggests a “bulldozing” of rainforest in Gabon to make way for palm oil plantation expansion. Development in Africa is increasingly popular for the palm oil sector as it tries to make up for a lack of available land in the two main producer countries of Malaysia and Indonesia. This is down to a combination of stricter governance and a greater awareness of palm oil related deforestation in southeast Asia.

African wildlife, including gorillas, chimpanzees and forest elephants, are at “serious risk” of being displaced, according to the Washington DC-based NGO.

Unsurprisingly, it is consumer brands bearing the brunt of these recent campaigns. Colgate, Nestlé and Unilever all featured heavily in the Amnesty report. Headlines such as “Corporate giants’ ‘sustainable’ palm oil revealed as sham” and “Global brands profiting from child and forced labour” were the order of the day.

Social challenges focus

Of course, NGOs investigating palm oil practices is nothing new. However, while the focus has so far been on tree-felling and the negative impacts on biodiversity, Amnesty’s attempt to highlight widespread social and labour problems in supplier organisations could certainly spark a new wave of protest for global brands to be worried about.

Also, possibly encouraged by some success in improving corporate transparency – with a handful of players now publishing the identity of suppliers online and allowing independent checks to be carried out – NGOs do seem more confident in calling out companies for not prioritising transparency. Glenn Hurowitz, Mighty’s chief executive, describes Olam as the “black box of the palm oil industry”.

But we’re trying!

The response from the companies has been both defensive and measured. They have pointed to public commitments, a promise to buy certified palm oil or a willingness to work more closely with NGOs such as Amnesty International in the future.

In response to the Amnesty report, Nestlé has highlighted its work with TFT to map its palm oil supply, with 90% of it traceable back to mills that process palm and 47% traceable to plantations. In the case of Olam’s work in Gabon, the company says that there should be some recognition that the country has a right to develop its agriculture and improve social conditions for its people.

More and more companies acknowledge that attaining sustainably sourced palm oil is complex and will take time. As Perpetua George, Wilmar’s assistant general manager for group sustainability, says: “It takes more than just companies to help overcome these issues that affect the lives of plantation workers.”

Collaboration, collaboration, collaboration

Right now, NGO activism is clearly having an impact, if only in stimulating sector-wide conversations about the great need for collaboration and finding jointly-funded solutions to dealing with common problems, such as child labour and poor working conditions.

The challenges need a bigger platform than sustainable certification to resolve; they require collaborations between governments, companies, and civil society organisations such as Amnesty International, Perpertua George argues.

The trick is to move from talking about having to do something and actually find the at-scale solutions, whether or not you feature in the latest NGO report.

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