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A few thoughts on palm oil.....

Now, this is a huge subject, so get comfy. It’s not a simple question and it’s very emotive, so I’ll try and explain our reasoning clearly.


Palm is popular for lots of reasons, it grows quickly, it’s simple to process and the end product has a myriad of uses, both in the food chain and in the personal care industry. So the customer base is huge, it’s not a complex oil to process and it’s easy to store, so really, it’s a producers dream. At the other end of the chain, it’s also appealing for so many reasons. For the cosmetic industry, it’s cheaper than chips, so it will bulk out your cream or lotion and bring the unit cost down hugely. Also, it has to be said, it does make a really nice soap. It makes a solid bar very quickly, it lasts well, it doesn’t get so gooey and it has this very special translucent quality to it that soapmakers just find so desirable. There are very solid reasons that people are so keen to use it, it works from both a quality and a cost perspective.


It’s difficult to see a downside until you start to pick apart how it’s harvested and what happens to the land it’s grown on and to the people that harvest it. That’s all just, well, it’s a veritable minefield of ethical knife edges. On the one hand, people have to eat, I get that, and producing something that sells is a great way of doing that, I’m not here to judge anyone for trying to feed their family. And it’s also true to say that their land is their right to do with as they please – after all, we got rid of our own forests quite some time ago and the people of Indonesia and Malaysia and all the other places palm grows just left us to get on with it didn’t they? But the amount of deforestation being carried out now solely for palm production is problematic. There’s a land grab going on for this that impacts both people and animals and I think we’re all very familiar with that aspect so I won’t dive in too deep on that issue, it’s been well covered.


What if there was a way to prove that the palm is being harvested ethically, from land that was cleared long ago and that the farmers that harvested it were paid a reasonable wage? That would be OK wouldn’t it? Well yes, yes it would, it would be great if there was an organisation with real teeth that could enforce such standards and then producers would fall into line because a certification would add huge value to their product.


What would be less great is a situation where the biggest consumer of the product was effectively in control of that certification.  I try very hard to see the good in people but I’m just going to come out and say it, when a company that has profits that run into the billions annually is heavily involved in an organisation that purports to have ethics at its heart, the hairs on the back of my neck rise.


I’m not saying the organisation that buys most of the palm produced globally shouldn’t have a seat at the table, of course they should, we’re trying to convince them to buy sustainable palm after all. But I am less convinced that they should have quite so much control over the way the certification is written. To be blunt, the RSPO relies on funding from companies that profit from palm production to exist. That makes me twitchy.


Let’s take a for instance here. It makes sense for countries with limited resources to build as few palm oil processing plants as possible, right? That means that “sustainable” palm is processed in exactly the same place and in exactly the same way as “dirty” palm. But how do you differentiate between them? Sustainable palm is worth considerably more than the other variety, but according to the RSPOs own figures only makes up some 19% of what’s sold on the global market – even now. So how do the processing plants work this out?


At plants like this, there’s something called a run-off period, a time at which one oil starts going into the front end of the plant – so lets’ say that on Tuesday, the plant finishes processing palm that will get a certification. The run-off period is three days – so all palm coming out until Friday is certifiable as RSPO oil, regardless of where is comes from. I’m no Global giant of a company with a world class firm of accountants on hand but even I can work out that if you want to bring down the cost of that product, those run-off periods are quite useful. You could, if you lacked a firm ethical grounding, start running “clean” palm again on Monday and end up with a lot more certified oil without caring too deeply about how it was produced.


This is just one of the ways that the organisation is failing, the Environmental Investigation Agency reported as far back as 2015 that the RSPO is “effectively giving false environmental credibility to its products”. The report uncovers fraudulent auditing of oil palm plantations, primary forests cleared to make way for plantations, and community rights being violated. Oh and who signs off on the length of the acceptable run-off period? You’ve guessed it, the certifying body. Even if these run-offs were being strictly adhered in both the spirit and the letter of the guidelines, the fact that a company that has so much to gain financially out of regulating the regulators just doesn’t sit well with me.


Any group is only as strong as its leadership and according to Mongabay the RSPO certification has failed to prevent deforestation and biodiversity loss because participants have differing interpretations of its primary objective, which is to “promote sustainable palm oil.” As a result, different RSPO stakeholder groups prioritise certain criteria over others. Conflict at the top results in confusion at the front end and leaves the efficacy of the certification open to interpretation.


There is an argument that by avoiding even “sustainable” palm you’re penalising the people who are trying to do the right thing, the very growers that we should be supporting. And that’s true, I can’t get around that. It doesn’t make me happy and yes, I know that we won’t get the certification standard we need by doing this but equally, I don’t think it’s acceptable to support an organisation that’s failing systemically. It’s also true that this is a relatively new industry and while it sorts itself out, there are other oils out there that do the job without a cloud of uncertainty hanging over them. I see that if we don't at least have our eyes open to the fact that the industry is taking on board the views of consumers, we're not going to incentivise them to change, I get that. But I believe the certification body needs to step up it's game significantly.


So, because the certification isn’t quite the cut and dried set of rules that would make us comfortable, we just don’t use palm. We know we could make great soap with it, in fact we’d really like to, we like that translucent thing a lot. We’re keeping an eye on the situation and at the point where it becomes clear that there’s a real grit behind it in the same way that there is for say, the Organic marks or the Fairly Traded marks then we’ll re-evaluate our stance. Until then, it’s no palm for us.