Paradise lost for soap and ice cream

Feature story - April 22, 2008
Are you a "green" consumer? Even if your intentions are good, your "Earth friendly" soap and organic ice cream may be driving species to extinction and heating up the planet, especially if these products contain palm oil.

Activists in orang-utan outfits block a UK Unilever factory protesting against the destruction of forests for palm oil.

Palm oil is a cheap vegetable oil used in products such as lipstick, soap, detergents, dry soups, ice cream and increasingly for so-called 'biofuels'. Global demand for palm oil is booming, and to meet this demand, industrial agriculture giants clear vast swaths of Paradise Forests in Southeast Asia to create palm oil plantations. This deforestation results in habitat loss, harm to local people  species extinction, and global warming.

Paving Paradise

Forest destruction for the development of the palm oil industry is taking place primarily in the Asia/Pacific Paradise Forests, primarily in Indonesia, Malaysia and Papua New Guinea (PNG). When deforestation is factored in, Indonesia is among the world's largest emitters of greenhouse gases. These Asian forests represent a green wall against uncontrollable climate change. Their destruction results in irreplaceable biodiversity loss and increased global warming due to the release of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Twenty percent of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions are the result of deforestation.

Forest destruction is worst where forests grow on peatlands, like in large parts of Southeast Asia. Peatlands store vast amounts of carbon, globally up to 528 billion tons (70 times the current annual global emissions from fossil fuel burning). Emissions from current deforestation on SE Asia's peatlands alone, equals to almost 8 percent of global emissions from fossil fuel burning. Riau province in Sumatra, subject to a massive expansion of palm oil plantations, alone comprises 4 million hectares of peatland (the size of Taiwan), storing 14.6 billion tonnes of carbon. If these peatlands are destroyed, the resulting emissions would equal an entire year of mankind's global greenhouse gas emissions.

Magnificent animals now threatened by this deforestation include the Sumatran tiger, rhino, elephant, birds of paradise, and the critically endangered orang utan. Indonesia contains between 10-15 percent of all known species of plants, mammals and birds that make up the world's biodiversity. Borneo and Sumatra, now host the world's remaining orang utans. They depend on the forest for food and nesting sites. According to the Centre for Orangutan Protection, at least 1,500 orang-utans died in 2006 as a result of deliberate attacks by plantation workers.

Wolves guarding the sheep

Nearly 75 percent of Indonesia's pristine forest areas have already been destroyed or degraded. Meanwhile, demand for palm oil is predicted to double by 2030 and triple by 2050. To meet this demand, the industry intends to convert more Asian forests to plantations. The UN Environmental Program estimates that 98 percent of Indonesian lowland forests could be gone by 2022.

To counter bad publicity about disappearing forests, the palm oil industry in Asia formed the "Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil Production" (RSPO). The word "sustainable" sounds earth-friendly, but notice that palm oil production is enterprise to be sustained, not the forest, the animals, or the Earth's climate.

The chair of RSPO is a representative from Unilever, among the world's biggest palm oil buyers. Other corporations on the board include plantation owners, commodities traders, and buyers such as Cargill, Cadbury's, Nestle, Tesco, and Golden Hope. Together these companies control about 40 percent of the global palm oil market. The wolves are guarding the sheep.

Greenwashing and cherry picking

Earth Day once served the purpose of raising awareness about the environment. Today, few people remain unaware, so perhaps the new purpose of Earth Day is to help people distinguish between real solutions and pure "Greenwashing," making a company or industry look green for public relations purposes, without actually changing environmentally harmful practices.

Corporations now realize that consumers care about the environment, so they have set their public relations departments loose to sell a new, "green" image. In 2003, Co-op America selected Starbucks as one of the "Ten Worst Greenwashers" for their reluctance to reduce paper waste or purchase Fair Trade coffee. Starbucks promised to add "up to 10 percent" recycled material in their coffee cups, "within five years."

Tricks of the green spin trade include "cherry-picking" data to look scientific while promoting a single point of view. "Astroturfing" is the tactic of making industry support groups that look green. Global public relations firm Burson-Marsteller pioneered this tactic in the 1980s with "Forest Alliances," funded and controlled by the international logging industry.

The Unilever-led RSPO uses some of the same Astroturfing tactics, creating an ineffective body with an environmental sounding name to obscure the continued destruction of the world's irreplaceable forests. Unilever is a marketing company that distributes some of the world's best-known brands, including Dove soap, Vaseline skin cream, the Heartbrand ice cream, and Slim Fast diet products. Most of these products include palm oil.

We at Greenpeace are asking Unilever to live up to their promise of "sustainability," by refusing to purchase palm oil from suppliers that are destroying forests for plantations. The destruction of these forests destroys habitat for endangered species and contributes to global warming. We are asking customers, who buy Unilver products, to write to the company and urge them to become authentic good citizens, not greenwashers.

Take action

Unilever, the maker of Dove beauty products, is buying palm oil from suppliers who destroy Indonesia's rainforests. We've got the proof. Unilever is causing forest destruction, species extinction and climate change.