Despite the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) association leading the push to increase the amount of certified sustainable palm oil being produced and used globally, the World Wild Fund For Nature (WWF) says that while companies are buying more certified sustainable palm oil than ever before, urgent action is still needed to avoid the irreversible loss of tropical forests and species such as Sumatran tigers. “Palm oil itself is not the issue – the problem is how and where it is produced. The solution is certified sustainable palm oil; it’s never been easier for companies to be responsible about the palm oil they use,” said Dr. Gilly Llewellyn, WWF-Australia’s director of Conservation.

In late November, WWF released the Palm Oil Buyers’ Scorecard 2011, which measures over 130 major retailers and consumer goods manufacturers by looking at their commitment to, and use of, palm oil certified to the internationally recognised standards of the RSPO.

Some companies have fallen behind on their existing commitments to use only 100 per cent certified sustainable palm oil, while others haven’t even started.“This is an urgent problem. The clearing of tropical forests for oil palm production can be very damaging to wildlife, communities and the environment. Deforestation takes away precious habitat and makes a major contribution to carbon pollution caused by human activity.”

In this year’s WWF Scorecard 87 of the 132 companies (66 per cent) have committed to sourcing 100 per cent RSPO-certified palm oil by 2015 or earlier, an encouraging sign that could spur further market development. Unilever Australia’s chief executive Sebastian Lazell said that on a global scale, Unilever recognised the need to support sustainable palm oil producers.“In 2008 we made a global commitment to source all of our palm oil sustainability by 2015. So far, our entire Australian and New Zealand operations and two thirds of our global requirements are covered by GreenPalm certificates and segregated sustainable palm oil. Unilever has purchased more than half of all the GreenPalm Certificates traded and we remain the biggest buyer and supporter of certified sustainable palm oil,” Mr Lazell said.

Leading companies, large and small, show the way

WWF’s Dr Llewellyn said leading companies of all sizes in the Scorecard demonstrate that it is possible to source certified sustainable palm oil. French cosmetic company L’Oreal and UK confectionery giant Cadbury scored nine out of a possible nine points, while global manufacturing brands Unilever, Nestlé and H J Heinz and retailer IKEA all scored eight out of nine. However, even those companies which scored highly have room for improvement and a long way to go before they are using only 100 per cent certified sustainable palm oil.

Only 17 of the 43 retailers and 15 of the 89 manufacturers assessed scored at three or below, showing that still too many companies are taking little or no responsibility for the negative impact of their palm oil use on forests, species and people. Most worrying is an overall lack of transparency about the amount of palm oil that companies use, which WWF believes is a major disincentive to growers of sustainable palm oil to move ahead with further certification.

“There is no excuse for companies to delay action on such an urgent issue. 2015 is just around the corner and all companies need to move faster. Only then can we ensure that the momentum gained by the RSPO is not lost and avoid the negative impacts of irresponsible oil palm plantations on forests, wildlife and communities,” said Dr Llewellyn. The supply of certified sustainable palm has grown dramatically since WWF released its first Scorecard in 2009, and now stands at 5 million tonnes (10 per cent of global palm oil production). Encouraging as this is, only about half of all the sustainable palm oil produced is being sold. This mirrors the situation in 2009, which is why WWF is renewing its call to companies to take their responsibilities far more seriously and urgently.

Palm oil is a highly versatile vegetable oil derived from very productive oil palm trees grown only in the tropics. Consumption of the oil is increasing globally and is set to grow from 50 million tonnes a year now to at least 77 million tonnes in 2050.