Procter & Gamble: It’s lonely at the bottom

by Joao Talocchi

March 24, 2014

There’s a new, and very selective, cool kids club in town. This club is made out of proactive, innovative, business savvy and environmentally conscious companies that have taken the necessary steps to guarantee their palm oil supply chains do not destroy forests.

This club, started by Nestle in 2011, has seen a recent boom in its membership. In the last 4 months Unilever, Ferrero, Mondelez, Hershey, L’Oreal, Safeway, DelHaize, and Kellogg have joined on the consumer goods side. Golden Agri Resources, Wilmar, New British Palm Oil, Daabon, and AgroPalma are the new members from the producer and trading group.

Orangutans are heavily threatened by deforestation linked to palm oil production.

Orangutans are heavily threatened by deforestation linked to palm oil production.

And today, we got some great news. Colgate-Palmolive adopted a No Deforestation policy and became the club’s newest member. It’s the 10th consumer company to join, bringing the total membership to 15 of the worlds most important players in the palm oil industry.

Why would companies want to adopt a strong No Deforestation policy? They know that nature is still the best and cheapest chemist in the world, producing the basic ingredients for all their products. What nature does for free can’t be be achieved through all the money in the world:

  • Think about photosynthesis what else could convert all the CO2 we exhale into the oxygen we breathe?
  • Or pollination can you imagine having to pay people to pollinate each individual flower?
  • And who is going to go out there to disperse seeds from every tree to be sure forests regenerate?
  • How else would we recycle soil nutrients on a global scale?
  • And what about evaporating water on the ground so it becomes rain somewhere else? A large tree can pump more than 200 gallons of water in a single day!
A Greenpeace activist holds a banner inside the palm oil concession of a palm oil supplier to Procter and Gamble.

A Greenpeace activist holds a banner inside the concession of a palm oil supplier to Procter and Gamble.

Companies know that a palm oil plantation simply cannot provide all these “services.” Healthy tropical ecosystems are based on diversity, the interactions between the elements and all forms of life, from the simplest bacteria to the most complex mammals.

By working to protect nature, these companies are working to protect their long term operations.

If that’s not enough, companies are also aware of the growing number of consumers who consider the impact their shopping has on nature and society. While these conscious consumers might not represent the largest share of the total consumers out there, they represent a very important segment, one that influences the decision making process of many others.

Think about organic, locally produced, or fair trade products. A few years ago they only took up one shelf of the supermarket, at most. Now, entire supermarkets are dedicated to only selling them.

These days, companies are worried about being associated with negative practices that might alienate these consumers, like deforestation or being implicated in social conflicts. Those negative connections tend to have a huge on their brands.

And that’s where organizations like Greenpeace come in. We monitor the implementation of commitments on the ground, and then we make that information publicly available. In the case of palm oil, what we’ve found out is that the Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), which is supposed to guarantee the certification of sustainable palm oil, doesn’t have the required mechanisms in place to guarantee forest protection. And it is doing a poor jog of implementing the ones that are in place.

A network of access roads on former orangutan habitat.

A network of access roads on former orangutan habitat.

This becomes a major issue when we consider that palm oil is the most used edible oil in the world. It is found in about 50% of the products on retailers’ shelves. And it is the main driver of deforestation in Indonesia.

That deforestation is driving tigers and orangutans to the brink of extinction, while creating conflict among communities who depend upon and live in the forest.

What all those companies in the new club have in common are strong policies that guard against deforestation. Their plans explicitly discuss the kind of palm oil they want to buy, outlining exactly what they expect from producers.

Meanwhile, Procter & Gambleinsists that RSPO certification is enough. We’ve raised the issue with them many times, including paying a visit to their headquarters a couple of weeks ago. They don’t seem to be listening.

A Greenpeace activist dressed in a tiger costume suspended on a zipline between P&G's headquarters in Cincinnati.

A Greenpeace activist dressed in a tiger costume suspended on a zipline between P&G’s headquarters in Cincinnati.

Colgate’s new policy is very detailed. It still mentions the RSPO, but goes beyond to discuss protecting forests. Colgate’s plan pays heed to forest “services” like biodiversity, carbon stocks, and soils. It stresses the importance of engaging with communities, mapping the palm oil Colgate buys all the way down to the plantations where it’s sourced. It also demands suppliers apply these principles to their entire operations, clearly stating that contracts will be canceled in case of non-compliance. But while its very detailed, its not perfect and Greenpeace will push Colgate-Palmolive to implement its No Deforestation policy before its stated 2020 deadline.

Meanwhile, P&G’s policy is vague at best:

“P&G is committed to the sustainable sourcing of palm oil. By 2015, we intend to only purchase and use palm oil that we can confirm to have originated from responsible and sustainable sources.” It goes on to say, “We encourage suppliers to adopt the Principles and Criteria of the RSPO for sustainable palm production.”

Essentially, P&G would like to imagine itself not contributing to deforestation, and maybe in the future it will be able to say it doesn’t. You know, if it happens to work out that way.

Forest destruction for palm oil is pushing Sumatran tigers to the edge of extinction.

Forest destruction for palm oil is pushing Sumatran tigers to the edge of extinction.

And that’s why P&G is not part of the club. With 3 of its main competitors Unilever, Colgate and L’Oreal already committing to strong No Deforestation policies, P&G has no excuses.

It can’t continue to hide behind vague announcements, supporting initiatives that are proved not to yield solid results.

You can let them know you want them to join the club. It’s a nice one! Click here and sign our petition.

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