Demand for palm oil for Nature chocolate and other goods is posing a threat to vital habitats
Household brands including Kit Kat, Flora and Dove soaps have been linked to the mass destruction of Asian rainforests for palm oil plantations.
The millions of acres ear marked for clearance include some of the last habitats of orangutans and other endangered species such as clouded leopards and sun bears.
Soaring global demand for palm oil – now at 41m tons a year – has already seen the destruction of about 20m acres of rainforest in Malaysia. Another 25m acres have been destroyed in Indonesia.
It has also made Indonesia the world’s third largest producer of greenhouse gases, emitted by decaying peat and vegetation exposed by the clearances.
Next month halting rainforest destruction will be top of the agenda at the global climate talks in Poznan, Poland, aimed at agreeing limits on greenhouse gas emissions. A report will warn that 50m acres have been earmarked for clearance in Indonesia alone.
In Britain few consumers are aware of the scale of such destruction. A survey found 75% of consumers knew little about palm oil even though it is found in nearly half of all cosmetics and processed foods.
Palm oil’s popularity is due to its low production costs and versatility. Cosmetics manufacturers use it to meet consumer demand for natural ingredients. There is also a fledgling but potentially huge market for palm oil in biofuels.
Manufacturers, who also include the makers of brands such as Olay, the beauty products group, know that consumer awareness is growing fast – and increasingly fear a backlash. This week they are sponsoring two events to try to “green” their public image.
Both events have been greeted with deep cynicism by environmentalists. In Europe the next few days will see the arrival of a ship carrying the world’s first cargo of “sustainable” palm oil. United Plantations (UP), will bring the 500-ton shipment into Rotterdam, with some to be sent on to Britain.
Customers are thought to include Sainsbury’s, which wants to use it in own-brand foods, and Unilever, the world’s largest buyer of palm oil at about 1.3m tons a year. Its 400 brands include Dove soaps, Flora margarine and Persil detergents, all of which use palm oil.
The shipment coincides with Tuesday’s meeting of the Round-table on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) in Bali, an industry body controlled by Unilever. Other members include Sinar Mas, Indonesia’s largest oil palm plantation company whose customers include Nestlé, the maker of Kit-Kats, and Procter & Gamble, which uses palm oil in products including Olay and Pringles.
Unilever said: “The RSPO is not moving as fast as we would like, but it is a step in the right direction. We’re committed to drawing all our palm oil from sustainable sources by 2015.”
The meeting is likely to be overshadowed by a report from Greenpeace alleging that UP is still clearing swathes of forest in contravention of the RSPO’s policies. “British consumers increasingly care about what they buy,” said Belinda Fletcher, senior forest campaigner. “The RSPO must ban its members from destroying rainforests and peatlands and kick out companies that won’t change their ways.”
A furious reply from UP showed how far apart the sides are. A spokesman said it would continue clearing rainforest: “Conservation means development as much as protection. We view the RSPO as a vehicle to achieve this and will remain supportive in promoting the production, use and growth of sustainable palm oil.”
Additional reporting: Claudia Cahalane