If you’ve been anywhere online in the couple of days you may have seen a lot of furore about a little guy called Rang-tan and the short film advert he stars in (if not here’s your context).
The crux of it is that Iceland (the UK supermarket chain, not the North Atlantic island all your edgy friends have been to) released their Christmas advert last week, only for it to be banned from TV, after the ad regulator Clearcast deemed it “too political”. The advert in question was originally produced by Greenpeace and features a little girl trying to get a baby orangutan out of her room, only to discover the animal has in fact fled from palm oil producers, who have cut down his forest home, killing his mother in the process.
Much of the discussion surrounding the broadcasting ban has been around whether the advert constitutes a political message or not, and whether than message is “too political” for TV. Less discussed however is what Iceland’s message – that it plans to remove palm oil from all of its products (until the ingredient can be produced without contributing to deforestation in southeast Asia) – actually means for the environment, and for the future of the world’s tropical rainforests.
The impact of palm oil cultivation on Southeast Asia’s rainforests, especially on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra, where all of the world’s remaining Orangutan populations are found, is something I’ve written about before. It’s honestly something I bang on about a lot. So I figured why not bang on about it here, and properly delve into the into my one thing while its still relevant in British pop culture. So let’s begin.
Palm Oil – The Situation
You’ve probably used something with palm oil today. I probably have too, so don’t panic. It’s incredibly hard to avoid using it. As many as half the products in the UK supermarkets contain palm oil, including most shampoos, soaps, cosmetics, processed foods and (heartbreakingly) Nutella. Not only is it everywhere, it’s also pretty good at hiding on ingredient lists. Here’s a list of over 200 alternate names for palm oil that may be written on product ingredient lists (https://www.palmoilinvestigations.org/names-for-palm-oil.html).
I can barely remember to buy ten items in Tescos without the use of a handwritten shopping list on a post-it. I have no idea how any of us are meant to remember to look out for Isostearyl neopentanoate on our weekly shop, or determine if the number of Laureth in our go-to shampoo is an okay one. Living a palm-oil-free life, unlike a meat-free or gluten-free one, just isn’t feasible by individual consumer choice alone.
With this situation in mind, you can see how monumental Iceland’s decision to cut palm oil out of all its products really is. This impossibly hard-to-avoid ingredient, whose production has increased fivefold since 1990, is about to be eradicated from the shelves of one of the UK’s fastest growing retailers. The question remains though, what will it be replaced with?
Palm Oil – The Alternatives
There’s no denying the extremely destructive impact that palm oil production has on the rainforests of Southeast Asia, especially in Indonesia and Malaysia, which together make up over 85% of global supply. I saw some of this impact in Sabah, the Malaysian state in Borneo where I worked as a research assistant, and where the majority of Malaysia’s orangutan populations are found. Here, oil palm plantations cover 19% the land area, while primary (undisturbed) rainforests, one of the most biologically diverse ecosystems on the planet, make up just less than 10%, constituting small fragments of habitat scattered across a vast sea of oil palm monocultures. That said though, the oil palm isn’t the only food product causing tropical deforestation, and the orangutan sadly isn’t the only species facing extinction due to our demands for agricultural products.
For instance, according to a 2017 report from the NGO Earthsight, no tropical forests are being destroyed more rapidly than those in the Gran Chaco region that stretches across Argentina, Bolivia, and Paraguay and provides a home to thousands of plant types and hundreds of bird, mammal and reptile species. Here, it is estimated that every fortnight, an area of forest the size of Manhattan is cleared. That’s the entire setting of the TV show Friends across all of its 10 seasons, cleared every two weeks. However the culprits behind the loss of Gran Chaco’s forests are not palm oil suppliers, but instead cattle-ranchers, soybean growers, and charcoal producers, with the UK and Germany being two of the biggest markets for Gran Chaco charcoal, sourced from Paraguay.
This matters because given the complexity behind the causes of deforestation, Iceland’s grand plan to swap palm oil for alternative ingredients will involve it having to navigate the multiple murky links between the world’s commercial supply chains and the clearance of the world’s rainforests, all in search of products that are environmentally-sound (assuming Iceland also cares about the other tropical rainforests in the world that don’t contain orangutans). You can guess how simple this will be.
Iceland’s website states that once it removes palm oil from its products, “alternative ingredients will vary depending on individual product requirements, meaning that there will be a mix of oils and fats involved”, and that “these will include sunflower oil, rapeseed oil and butter.” It’s here we get to the catch-22s.
For all its faults, the oil palm is very high yield plant, and is up to 10 times more efficient than other crops such as soybeans, rapeseed and canola in terms of the amount of land it needs. Moving away from the oil palm then might not deliver the win for the environment that Iceland and all of us currently moved by Rang-tan’s story are hoping for. It might just direct Iceland’s contribution to deforestation (which is admittedly fuelled by UK consumers) away from Borneo and Sumatra, but towards the rainforests of South America currently being cleared by soybean producers and cattle ranchers, or towards the other valuable ecosystems currently being cleared to make way for lower yield crops. The alternative “oils and fats” Iceland plans to replace palm oil with will have to come from somewhere after all, and this shift could be more detrimental than you might think. According to the WWF, if it weren’t for the high yield oil palm, nine times as much land would need to be set aside to grow crops to meet the world’s current demand for vegetable oils.
Iceland does note that “there are a number of alternatives to palm oil that are not destroying the rainforest” but doesn’t state exactly what these are. As it turns out, if you talk to an ecologist , or anyone working for the WWF (or even Greenpeace) the best alternative to palm oil may in fact be palm oil, provided it is produced sustainably.
‘Sustainable palm oil’ carries a certification from the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) that is only granted if its producers have implemented the most sustainable farming practices, committed to the preservation of “High Conservation Value” (HCV) areas (like the primary rainforests orangutans are found in), and supported the local communities they employ. Progress on RSPO-certified palm oil has been painfully slow, with only 19% of global production meeting this standard, but it has gained traction in recent years.
The RSPO currently counts over 3000 major companies, NGOs, banks and social organisations as members, a number that far outstrips similar roundtables for other commodities such soya, cotton and beef whose impact on deforestation have given us fewer beautifully-animated short films thus far. The RSPO hopes to grow beyond the 19% of global palm oil production it currently oversees, but to do this it has to convince more suppliers to sign on to its certification scheme, and convince more retailers to only purchase from its trusted partners.
A complete boycott of palm oil by UK supermarkets like Iceland may jeopardise this plan. When the market for sustainable palm oil is lacklustre and certified suppliers cannot find a buyer, their palm oil may be sold as conventional palm oil without the price premium the RSPO certificate grants. This provides little incentive for other palm oil suppliers to commit to the preservation of rainforest reserves and the use of the best farming practices required to get certified in the first place. This is already happening. In 2015 only half of the world’s certified sustainable palm oil was actually bought.
The RSPO model of palm oil production is by no means perfect, but if retailers and consumers pull out of the market for palm oil completely, they also lose the chance they have to sway that market towards a better, much less environmentally-damaging future, and to put pressure on suppliers to preserve the rainforest as part of their operations. This may derail the collaborative efforts to tackle palm oil-driven deforestation that have been making gains long before Christmas 2018.
This is bad for many reasons, but not least because the production of RSPO-certified palm oil means us consumers actually can influence the palm oil market with our buying habits. Organisations like the WWF have put together scorecards for over 100 companies based on their commitment to purchasing sustainably-produced palm oil (see here: http://palmoilscorecard.panda.org/). You can search your favourite or most-used brands and see how much they care about Orangutans / the planet.
Despite all this, I can’t refute that the Christmas advert that sent me down this rabbit hole is a beautifully-made and fairly powerful short film, and I’m sad that it won’t be shown on TV this December. As I said, this is the first time I’ve ever seen the link between everyday supermarket products, palm oil, and deforestation being made in mainstream British pop culture. The success of the film in generating comment and discussion about this issue outside of environmentally-focused books, journals and other such echo-chambers should not be underestimated. I just think Iceland’s message for the holiday season needs to be taken with a pinch of ethically-sourced and sustainably-produced salt.
As I also mentioned, palm oil is impossibly hard to boycott as an individual consumer, given its prevalence in UK supermarkets. But boycotting deforestation is even harder. So, putting aside the role of public action and commentary around palm oil for a minute, the fate of the world’s rainforests in the face of intensive agriculture and logging ultimately lies with the retailers and suppliers driving that agriculture and logging, and the decisions they make about the way they produce their products and who they partner with. Decisions like Iceland’s.
If those decisions weigh up the whole of deforestation with all its complexities and multiple drivers, rather than just the most publicised causes, and lead to wiser, stricter and more sustainable ways of producing our supermarket products, then Iceland and Rang-tan might be onto something. Otherwise, short films about the plight of the world’s rainforests may start to pop up more than once a year…
Sources (seriously, this topic is a real rabbit hole):
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