Palm oil

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Palm oil is the world’s most consumed and traded vegetable oil, accounting for 60% of global trade

Four of the UK’s biggest retailers have been identified as industry leaders in the latest WWF sustainable palm oil ranking.

Marks & Spencer and Sainsbury’s have jumped from “middle of the pack” to join John Lewis and Co-op as “leading the way” in this year’s Palm Oil Buyers Scorecard.

The four grocers all scored above 21 out of a possible top score of 24, showing an increase in efforts to source sustainable palm oil and protect the world’s forests.

Tesco, Asda and other food behemoths including Unilever, Greggs and Bakkavor also ramped up efforts to source sustainable palm oil across their supply chains.

All scored between 16 and 20 in the WWF study, in which a total of 128 companies participated.

Palm oil is the world’s most consumed and traded vegetable oil, and found in around 50% of products on supermarket shelves, from frozen foods and confectionery to make-up.

But its production has notoriously been linked to illegal deforestation in countries like Malaysia and Indonesia over the years, threatening endangered species such as orangutans, elephants and tigers.

The latest data from the conservation fund shows 23 companies globally achieved the highest ranking – up from 14 in 2021 – as both industry and governments have taken robust action to curb palm oil-linked deforestation.

However, the WWF warned that many buyers were still “falling short of taking the actions needed to halt the destruction of crucial forests and natural ecosystems”.

While 91% of respondents have committed to sourcing 100% RSPO-certified palm oil, only 59% of respondents are doing so.

“WWF’s palm oil scorecard gives the public sight of what companies are doing to build a sustainable palm oil industry,” said Nicola Brennan, WWF’s conversion-free supply chain specialist.

“It also shows that it is possible for companies to introduce sustainable palm oil across their entire product ranges and that every company can follow suit.

“Given the urgency of tackling deforestation and protecting smallholders and local communities, companies must accelerate action across markets and prove they are serious about transforming the palm oil industry so that as consumers we can be confident that the products, we buy aren’t driving deforestation,” Brennan added.

Big food importers like Associated British Foods, Nomad Foods and Boots-owner Walgreens Boots Alliance had some of the poorest performances in this year’s ranking.

The WWF also said there was still a lack of transparency on palm oil use and sustainability efforts across industry, as over half of the companies it contacted did not respond to the scorecard.

Progress at the current rate “falls short of the necessary measures that are needed to tackle the ongoing damage to species, habitats, livelihoods and forests inflicted by unsustainable palm oil production”, which is expected to quadruple by 2050, the group warned.

Both the UK and the EU have recently put forward legislation to slash illegal deforestation linked to the supply chains of several at-risk commodities, including palm oil.

This will mean suppliers in Asian countries, as well as importers across Europe, will have to produce evidence that their palm oil production is not linked to illegal clearing, habitat destruction, and human or labour rights abuse.

The report highlighted companies had been adopting robust commitments in preparation, with 52% having a no-deforestation and conversion commitment, and 47% adopting comprehensive commitments on human rights.

Buyers also have a growing expectation of supplier accountability, with 73% requiring suppliers to have a deforestation policy, and 93% expecting suppliers to uphold human rights policies.

A M&S spokesperson said: “As part of our Plan A roadmap, we are committed to reaching our target of 100% segregated responsibly sourced palm oil by 2025/26. We are also continuing to support groups such as Forever Sabah to help smallholders better protect the environment improve the wellbeing of their community.”

A Sainsbury’s spokesperson said: ”Deforestation is a complex, global challenge and we believe collective industry action is the only way to tackle the root causes and drive change at the speed and scale that is needed.

“As part of our Plan for Better, by 2025 we aim to ensure that all ‘high risk materials’ within our own brand products can be traced back to land which has not been deforested or converted since 2020.

”In collaboration with the Rainforest Alliance and METRO, we have invested £300,000 in a multi-year initiative in Sintang, West Kalimantan (Indonesia) to help protect forests and promote sustainable farming practices by bringing farmers, communities and local government together to address issues around palm oil production and support smallholders to produce palm oil more sustainably.”