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Best Practices voor een duurzame toekomst
15 november 2008

Unilever rides the thorny road to sustainable palm oil

Palm oil leads to deforestation. The current problem is the exploding demand of palm oil, due partly to expanding markets in India and China and also to the use of palm oil as a feedstock for biofuels in the energy sector. Unilevers dedication to the RSPO is demonstrated by the fact that the companys Sustainable Agriculture Director, Jan Kees Vis, is also president of the RSPOhs executive board. In May 2008, Unilever announced its intention to ensure that all of its palm oil RSPO-certified sustainable by 2015.

According to Greenpeace, however, Unilever is not doing enough. This year, the NGO issued two demands. The first called on Unilever to support an immediate moratorium on the destruction of rainforest and peatland areas in Indonesia for palm oil production. Unilever has agreed to do this. Together with Greenpeace, Unilever has articulated a set of draft principles defining what the moratorium will mean in practice. Unilever has also developed a draft resolution to be submitted to the General Assembly of the RSPO in Bali in November 2008. Greenpeaces second demand called on Unilever to stop trading with palm oil suppliers involved in rainforest destruction. Unilever has replied that it believes it is better to work with suppliers “to persuade them and help them to stop using unsustainable agricultural methods.”

The controversy between Greenpeace and Unilever focuses on United Plantations, a RSPO-certified company in Malaysia, which is still destroying forests in Indonesia by producing palm oil, says Greenpeace. According to Greenpeace, “this shows a fundamental flaw within RSPO as it fails to monitor the obligations of their members to comply with even the minimum criteria at a company level.” Greenpeace fears that companies use the RSPO as a greenwash. Responding to this allegation, Jan Kees Vis immediately announced an inquiry.

Deputy director Wijnand Broer of CREM, a Dutch consultant specialising in corporate social responsibility (CSR) and commodities from developing countries, says he understands why RSPO-criteria are not far-reaching enough for Greenpeace. “RSPO has a lot of elements of the ISO14001 environmental management system, describing and monitoring the process and procedures. Only part of the RSPO-system is performance based. I also understand that Greenpeace and some other NGOs oppose the fact that RSPO certifies palm oil plantations which were converted from forests before November 2005, the date the RSPO-certificate became effective.”

On the other hand, says Broer, the palm oil industry is very complex. “A mix between a process and performance-based certification system is inevitable. If Greenpeace were to design a system, I guess it would be unacceptable for all the big players. You have to start on an acceptable level.”

P+ webtip: Unilever about Sustainable Palmoil