WWF chief executive David Nussbaum calls for commitment to stop deforestation and climate change, and reduce the threat to species


Nestlé. M&S. United Biscuits. All big names in grocery. All big users of palm oil. All have made big decisions in the past month. Each one has now joined Sainsbury's, Unilever and others in making commitments to source 100%-sustainable palm oil. Some have not been so quick. There are even a few that refuse to accept palm oil as an issue. It is.

Palm oil is used in a huge variety of packaged food products sold by supermarkets and is essential to many consumer goods. However, oil palms only grow in the tropics. Its increasing popularity is thus serving to accelerate deforestation and the draining of peat lands. The result? Species under threat, conflicts with local people and a significant contribution to climate change.

You probably know all that, but how many consumers would? As it happens more than you might think. As NGO campaigns make them more aware of ethical challenges, like palm oil, they will demand sustainability and at the right price.

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil delivers an assurance of sustainability for palm oil. Yet price has often been levied as an excuse for not buying Certified Sustainable Palm Oil. Yes, it's more expensive, but aren't many things when they first enter the market? As Justin King pointed out: "If more firms started buying CSPO, this would lead to better prices, an increase in production and a decrease in deforestation."

Disappointingly, that wasn't happening. After years of hard work through the Roundtable which WWF helped establish the first shipment of CSPO arrived late last year. Six months on and 99% of it was still left unsold. So we acted. We wanted to find out who was doing what or, more to the point, who wasn't doing what. Last month, we published the first-ever Palm Oil Buyers' Scorecard. Some 25 UK companies were involved. Seven did pretty well. One did badly. And the majority (17) 'could do better'.

Every one of the UK companies could do better, however including the seven in the Scorecard's top 10. Commitments now need to be put into practice. This time round we checked companies' involvement in the RSPO, their policies and if they were buying CSPO. Next time we'll assess the amount being bought. Next time we'll be tougher on those not pulling their weight.

This may seem a little drastic to some but it is creating momentum. Last week, the RSPO had its seventh annual meeting. Emissions were a big issue: how could we include a commitment to reduce emissions in CSPO production? The board thrashed out a compromise and voluntary emissions reduction standards will soon be in place. Producers outside Malaysia and Indonesia backed the objective, while also committing to stop plantations expanding on peat lands.

The Scorecard has created a buzz among all those involved in palm oil. Seeing the big manufacturers and retailers make bigger commitments has helped. Now responsible palm oil buyers need to make it clear they want CSPO and they want their suppliers to commit to reducing the climate emissions of palm oil.

To date, 20% of the million tonnes of CSPO has been bought. So we're nowhere near a 'tea break' on this that won't happen until we know the biscuits are made from sustainable palm oil.

David Nussbaum is chief executive of WWF-UK.

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