The company, which supplies 40% of the world’s palm oil, made a new pledge on Monday (10 December) to ensure that its supply chains are classed as “deforestation-free” by 2020 – a commitment which builds on its 2013 “no deforestation, no peat, no exploitation” (NPDE) sustainability strategy.  

In order to achieve the new goal, Wilmar International will carry out a supplier audit by the end of January 2019, with all suppliers found to be driving forest loss then facing “immediate” suspension.

The company will also invest in satellite software and technology, which will be used to monitor supplier farms from above, therefore ensuring transparency and compliance.

Wilmar International’s chairman and chief executive Kuok Khoon Hong said in a statement that he felt “compelled” to bolster the company’s sustainability ambitions in light of recent research suggesting that palm oil-led deforestation is rising globally.

“We have a shared responsibility with the rest of the upstream and downstream industry players as well as consumer goods companies and NGOs to prioritize forest protection at the heart of our operations,” the statement reads.

“We will make progress in moving the industry through the implementation of these stricter controls.”

Wilmar International notably supplies palm oil to factories producing products for a number of big-name consumer goods and food and drink firms, including Unilever, Proctor & Gamble and Mondelez International.

Green economy reaction

The announcement from Wilmar International was welcomed by Greenpeace, which has been actively campaigning against the firm’s 2013 policy for several years, claiming it was “insufficient” to tackle deforestation and modern slavery in palm oil supply chains.

The green group’s global head of Indonesian forests campaigns Kiki Taufik confirmed that Greenpeace will “pause” this campaign in order to give Wilmar International time to put the new plan into place.

“As the world wakes up to the climate and extinction crisis, inaction is not an option,” Taufik said.

“Wilmar has taken an important step and must now put its plan into action immediately. If Wilmar keeps its word, by the end of 2019 it will be using satellites to monitor all of its palm oil suppliers, making it almost impossible for them to get away with forest destruction.”

The move was also welcomed by WWF’s commodities lead Emma Keller, who said the use of satellite monitoring could help the palm oil industry take a “huge step forward” in eliminating unsustainable practices from supply chains.

“Produced the right way, palm oil doesn’t have to cause the destruction of forests that provide homes to orangutans, tigers and elephants,” Keller said.

“As one of the world’s largest palm oil companies, Wilmar has a key role to play in stopping unsustainable palm oil from finding its way into supply chains and ultimately onto the shelves of our supermarkets. “

Palm oil awareness

Palm oil appears in more than 50% of all supermarket products, from confectionary to cosmetics, but the commodity is linked to environmental destruction in global supply chains. Expanding palm oil and wood pulp plantations are the biggest drivers of deforestation in Indonesia and Malaysia, where many species, including the orangutan, are being threatened with extinction.

In a bid to tackle the issue, firms such as Unilever have moved to source palm oil certified as “deforestation-free” in recent months, with the multinational having struck a deal with a government-owned palm oil plantation firm in Indonesia to create a support framework that enables local mills and smallholders to produce palm oil according to zero-deforestation and zero-peatland-deterioration standards this year.

Supermarket Iceland, meanwhile, has adopted a different approach, removing palm oil from its own-brand products altogether. The company’s activism in this field has earned much attention and praise from the UK public and the media – particularly after its deforestation-focused Christmas advert was blocked from TV over concerns it was “too political”.

More than 800,000 people have signed a petition demanding regulators allow the Iceland advert, called “Rang-Tan”, to be aired on TV.

However, the CDP has warned that shifting away from palm oil to other commodities such as rapeseed or coconut oil could actually cause more extensive deforestation and pose greater risks of water stress.

 Sarah George

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