Which brands can you trust?

posted by Gemma Tillack

As I travel across the world for Rainforest Action Network’s campaign to transform the palm oil sector I am always asked one simple question. “Which brands can I trust? ” As the year draws to a close I wish I could roll off a list of brands that have succeeded in efforts to break the link between their products and Conflict Palm Oil but that is simply not the case.

For nearly ten years, our team has exposed the impacts of Conflict Palm Oil production on rainforests, local communities and increasingly on our climate and plantation workers in Indonesia and Malaysia. Our campaigns have driven epic shifts in consumers’ understanding of the problems with conventional palm oil production and countless new and improved policies by the world’s biggest brands. Despite this progress, it pains me to say that consumers cannot have faith that all the products they buy contain truly responsible palm oil.

2016 was a year where we were faced with one challenge—we needed to convert paper promises into real outcomes for workers and communities and rainforests on the frontlines of palm oil expansion. As a way to drive this change we scaled up our work with local partners to investigate the supply chain of the Snack Food 20 and their global suppliers. What we found was shocking.

Our investigations with the Indonesian labor rights advocacy organization OPPUK and International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF) exposed the human cost of palm oil production through exploitative worker conditions in the operations of Indofood—a major industry laggard and partner to PepsiCo, Nestle, Wilmar, Golden Agri Resources, Musim Mas and big banks across the world.

The plantations in question were certified ‘sustainable’ by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). For the first time, RAN filed a formal complaint against Indofood demanding that it be expelled from the scheme so it could not longer spin its products as being ‘sustainable’. The RSPO has so far failed to strip Indofood of its membership, leaving it on a long list of controversial RSPO members that continue to operate in breach of its standard. This case, and others such as the controversial premature re-certification of IOI Group earlier this year, shows that the RSPO still lacks the teeth needed to be a trusted certification system for truly responsible palm oil.

Despite the weaknesses of the RSPO, Snack Food 20 laggards Tyson Food, Kraft Heinz, Nissin Foods and Toyo Suisan continue to rely on it as their sole mechanism for avoiding controversial sources of palm oil. These four brands and PepsiCo continue to be ranked behind their peers in our scorecard due to their inadequate policies and failure to drive meaningful change throughout their supply chains. To add insult to injury, Tyson Foods is also driving the irresponsible expansion of factory farming around the world. Time has run out for these snack food laggards. Their reputations will be further put to the test in 2017.

Just last month, our field teams documented active clearance in the priceless Leuser Ecosystem by growers with links to the major traders supplying the Snack Food 20. These investigations show that even frontrunners such as Unilever, Nestle, General Mills, Mars, Kellogg’s and Mondelez can not be trusted given their links to the destruction of the Leuser Ecosystem—the last place on earth where Sumatran orangutans, elephants, rhinos, and tigers coexist in the wild.

It is clear that left to their own devices, the corporate giants that control the palm oil industry will not deliver the transformation of the industry that is so desperately needed. Driven by the obsession of making profits, they will cut corners with devastating consequences for workers, communities, rainforests and the planet that we all rely on.

The good news is they all have a weakness—their profits are reliant on billions of consumers across the planet buying their brands instead of their peers.

As consumer awareness of the problems with Conflict Palm Oil continues to grow so will the movement of activists demanding real change in palm oil supply chains globally. We will be the force of change that is needed. In 2017, we will need to be bolder in our actions. We will need to continue to confront their CEO’s and leaders in our schools, college campuses and banks. We will need to echo the demands of workers and local communities louder than ever before.

2017 will be a year to remember. We cannot do it without you.