Monday, November 1, 2010


I attended World Vegan Day in Melbourne as a stall holder yesterday. This year, I represented Australian Orang-utan Project but still focused on palm oil as well as trying to raise a few dollars. This year, I talked a lot about RSPO.

Over the last two years, as people have started to become more aware, a lot of questions have been asked. Specifically questions about RSPO, who most companies will refer to when a consumer asks about a products palm oil content.

This has proven to be quite a confusing issue for everyone. So I did a little write up to start clearing up the confusion, which you can read below:


So you have heard about the palm oil issue and are understandably concerned. You have found out some of the names palm oil is hidden under and have discovered them in some of your favourite products. You have gone to the trouble to contact the company, which has responded with a long email echoing your concerns, giving you some palm oil facts and placating you by saying they only buy responsibly. They only buy from members of the RSPO. That sounds ok, right? They sound like they are doing the right thing...

So, just who are the RSPO and what are the issues?

The RSPO is made up of and chaired by, primarily, palm oil industry heads, investors, companies and a handful of NGOs such as WWF Indonesia. Application to join costs between $160-$3000, depending upon the nature of your business. There are three levels of membership, with the top level of membership open to those directly involved in the palm oil industry; including growers, traders, retailers, manufacturers, investors and environmental and social NGO’s. Only the top level members have the power to vote in general elections and the opportunity to get a representative on the board of directors. This all sounds reasonable; until you actually consider that the board of directors is stacked with those with a vested interest in maintaining high palm oil production.

Members must follow a code of conduct (and can be expelled from the RSPO if they fail to comply)and that is all they are required to do. But the code of conduct comprises nothing more than a few broad statements; it is not policed and RSPO has no power to do so.

You may have seen the recent video from Greenpeace, which centred on Nestle and their use of palm oil in goods such as Kit Kats. The company from which Nestle purchases their palm oil is PT Sinar Mas which is a member of the RSPO through two of its subsidiary companies. It is claimed that PT Sinar Mas is one of the worst offenders in primary rainforest destruction; which includes displacement of local people and the destruction of habitat and the deaths of many species found only in Indonesia and Malaysia. Nestle is just one of the huge number of companies to which PT Sinar Mas supplies palm oil.

When companies respond to your email that they buy from suppliers who are members of RSPO, that member could well be PT Sinar Mas.

Incidentally, in the last few days, the companies PT Sinar Mas owns have gone before the RSPO grievance panel. Outcome? An extra company membership for a start. And a "voluntary step down" from active role of the other two company membership holders, well until 31st March 2011.

So the punishment for wanton destruction of rainforest, murder of animal species, displacement of local people and "serious non-compliance" of RSPO code of conduct, is extra membership...

The mind boggles.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

What Cadbury Did

In 2009, Cadbury changed the recipe of their chocolate to include palm oil. Their reasons were to make it softer to bite whilst still remaining affordable. It's what their customers wanted apparently.

The palm oil issue was not as well known then as it is right now and many activists, who had long been campaigning, set to work to make the public aware about this change and what it meant. Obviously Cadbury were none too impressed, calling us the "vocal minority".

Unfortunately for Cadbury, the public were on our side and they admitted the change in recipe was perhaps a bad idea. They made a big hoo-ha about going back to the original recipe and with clever marketing, everyone thought it was hunky dory.

Alas, no.

After looking more closely at their blocks of chocolate, it was discovered that the blocks containing a liquid filling still contained palm oil. Many people, including myself, emailed Cadbury for an explanation.

The use of palm oil in various fillings was part of the recipe before the attempted recipe change in the plain chocolate, so technically what they told the public was absolutely true. They went back to the original recipe of their plain chocolate. But they never changed their filling recipe and it has always contained palm oil.

Cadbury is not palm oil free. Even if you buy the plain blocks, you are funding their purchase of palm oil in Indonesia and are contributing to the current problem.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Beginning

I started my palm oil journey over two years ago. In that time, I have learned a lot but the journey has not become any easier. In fact, it has become more frustrating and complex the further along I go.

I volunteer with Australian Orang-utan Project, raising money for various projects in Indonesia and Malaysia. I also volunteer with Palm Oil Action Group, which is campaign based.

I have just commenced the lofty endeavour of putting together a list of palm oil free products. It isn't as simple as it seems as even buying products that don't contain palm oil may be manufactured by companies using palm oil in other products. So, while you may be consuming a "palm oil free" product, you are still contributing to the problem.

For the record, I love Indonesia. I've not been to Malaysia, but have little doubt I would love it as well. The current system of palm oil production is no good long term for anyone. In reality, no matter what we do, someone is going to lose out. Small farmers seem to lose out in almost every scenario.

Sustainable palm oil is misleading under the current system. Imagine two farmers, on neighbouring plantations. Farmer One, is sustainable, workers are looked after, no illegal logging, no wildlife slaughtered. Farmer Two, is not sustainable, uses cheap labour, practices slash and burn techniques, logs illegally and slaughters wildlife, selling babies into the illegal pet trade.

Obviously, as conscientious consumers, we would only want to buy from Farmer One. Unfortunately it isn't that simple. The oil palm fruit from Farmer One and Farmer Two both travel to the same mill. So even if a company is buying from Farmer One, the end product is contaminated with palm oil from Farmer Two's plantation.

Ideally, a mill that only buys from sustainable plantations and greater assistance to smaller farmers to achieve sustainability would be in existence. This is a bit of a dream at the moment as the Indonesian and Malaysian governments don't have the resources to provide the sort of assistance needed.

Unfortunately in our quest to save rainforests and wildlife, such as orang-utans who are estimated to be extinct in the wild in around five years, small farmers are going to lose out. This is something I personally struggle with.