Could this new mapping toolkit solve the palm oil transparency challenge?

With rising transparency issues leading to supplier contracts being scrapped and green groups piling on the pressure to tackle the situation, a new World Resources Institute (WRI)-backed initiative could finally allow companies to gauge deforestation risks by evaluating satellite surveillance of global palm oil mills.

As the deforestation-fuelled friction between palm oil giant IOI and the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) it helped to establish begins to fade, the spotlight remains firmly on global companies and their efforts to resolve the issue of palm oil sustainability.

A host of global companies including Johnson & Johnson, PepsiCo and Unilever were recently urged by WWF to break the link between the use of palm oil in everyday products and deforestation.

This intense and continued pressure seemingly culminated earlier this week when IOI – which remains one of the world’s largest producers of palm oil – agreed to comply with the highest levels of accreditation available from the RSPO, which had previously suspended the group in April over allegations regarding deforestation in Indonesia, leading to companies including Unilever, Nestlé and Mars revoking all supplier contracts with IOI.

Even Golden Agri-Resources (GAR) – the world’s second largest palm oil company, managing more than 480,000 hectares of plantation – is unable to escape from the issue. Despite completing the mapping and traceability of its supply chain through to each of its 489 mills in Indonesia earlier this year, GAR recently told edie that it is engaging with individual supplier mills which have allegedly been using ‘tainted and illegal’ palm oil sources, in an attempt to clarify revelations uncovered in a recent report.

These two examples provide an insight into the highly complex issue of palm oil transparency. With GAR and many others shooting for a ‘fully traceable’ supply chain goal for 2020, there is a clear need for suppliers and retailers to accelerate efforts to develop a fully transparent palm oil sector.

Satellite solutions

A new PALM Risk Toolkit, launched on Wednesday (8 June) has introduced a new means of conducting supply chain analysis, which could provide a crucial solution for those companies looking to increase their palm oil traceability.

Hosted on the on Global Forest Watch Commodities portal, the PALM Risk Tool conducts detailed risk assessments by working alongside nearly 800 mills to improve sustainable management and improve deforestation commitments. By conducting automatic analysis of sourced satellite images, along with other spatial data within a 50km radius of each mill, the Tool can determine threats to nearby forest and peatland sites.

Where this new initiative truly differs from the internal mapping efforts of companies is that it evaluates the surroundings of mills to gauge deforestation risks. Most companies have access to industrial mill data where the palm oil is processed, but this usually doesn’t account for the fact that the produce must be processed at the mills immediately after the harvest.

With the data gathered, the PALM Risk Tool then ranks each mill on a ‘low’, ‘medium’ or ‘high’ scale, based on the proximity to the carbon-rich environments, with past behaviour also accounted for. The tool then uploads all mill points onto an interactive map with annotations on the risk to nearby areas and fire hazards.

Using the Tool in a pilot exercise with Unilever, WRI has been able to identify 29 ‘high-risk mills. By identifying these mills – just a small portion of the supply chain – Unilever has been able to conduct “further in-depth verification” analysis, to establish future plans with the mills and what collaborative approaches could be introduced to reduce the risk and create a more sustainable supply chain.


The new toolkit marks the second time this year that WRI has partnered with the private sector to tackle supply chain deforestation. In March, it partnered with international agri-foods business Cargill to use mapping and analytics to highlight deforestation and water risk issues in Indonesia and Paraguay.

The Risk Tool was launched at RSPO’s European Roundtable Meeting in Milan, where palm oil producers and NGOs gathered for the European Summit.

While WRI used the summit to promote the toolkit, also in attendance was Greenpeace, which used its time in Milan to reveal the extent of the deforestation damage allegedly caused by IOI, further highlighting the need for an enhanced mapping tool.

The Greenpeace research revealed that deforestation and peatland drainage in Indonesia is far greater than the RSPO acknowledged. The NGO called on the Roundtable to uphold IOI’s suspension until the palm oil producer had restored all the landscapes affected by its mill activities.

“Over the past week, IOI has given up trying to bully its way back into the RSPO,” Greenpeace Indonesia’s forest campaigner Annisa Rahmawati said. “But empty promises and weak commitments won’t stop Indonesia from burning. The RSPO mustn’t consider readmitting IOI until the company can prove it is cleaning up the mess it’s made.”

edie Sustainable Supply Chain Conference

Realising the reputational, efficiency and economic benefits of a truly sustainable supply chain has become a core objective for multinational firms and ambitious SMEs alike. 

But while the paybacks are clear to see, the process of identifying material issues within supply chains; formulating an ethical and responsible CSR strategy, and communicating that strategy both internally and externally is a complex and challenging endeavour.

Now in its fifth year, the edie Sustainable Supply Chain Conference will discuss all of these issues and more, taking place on 6 July in London. Find out more about the Conference and register to attend here.

Matt Mace

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