The future of sustainability within the Palm Oil industry

Think of palm oil, and it’s likely that the forests and swamps of west Africa and Southeast Asia spring to mind. More specifically, at least if you are in Western Europe or the United States, it’s possible that you imagine decimated forests, drained swamps, homeless orangutans and out-of-control mega fires. As a European arriving in Asia for the first time four years ago, this certainly was the perception I had.

IDH’s Reuben Blackie on connecting both ends of the supply chain

The narrative of palm oil as an industry with some serious and deep-seated environmental and social problems is not incorrect, and watchdogs and campaign groups play an essential and necessary role in ensuring that consumers understand these challenges and that the companies that serve them deliver change. However, the story is not all doom and gloom. Many local and international companies, governments, organisations and individuals are working hard to deliver change where it’s needed. Many parts of the supply chain are already sustainable. It’s important that we celebrate these efforts, while acknowledging that there is much more to be done. It’s also important that we acknowledge that the challenges in palm oil, as with many commodities, are complex and cannot easily be solved by any one party acting alone. Those that are acting responsibly or changing their practices need to feel supported by other parties throughout the supply chain. Otherwise, there is a risk that they give up, and the dominant narrative becomes the dominant reality.

That’s why I was encouraged by the visit of several signees of the Commitment to Support 100% Sustainable Palm Oil in Europe, organized by the European Palm Oil Alliance (EPOA) to Indonesia and Malaysia earlier this month. EPOA is a collection of businesses and organisations with operations in Europe and elsewhere that describes itself as a “business initiative…committed to create a science based and balanced view on the nutritional and sustainability aspects of palm oil.” EPOA works closely together with IDH on communicating the full palm oil story and facilitating the European debate on palm oil. The visit was intended to improve understanding of the situation at origin for European national alliances on sustainable palm oil and EU sector organisations while providing an opportunity for those in Asia to better understand how their European counterparts are working to support sustainable palm oil. The delegation visited sustainable palm oil plantations, met with farmers as well as other industry groups and NGOs in Malaysia and Indonesia.

As a public-private partnership platform, IDH is particularly keen on engaging businesses and business initiatives. I was therefore pleased to be invited to present the work of IDH in improving sustainability at landscape scale. Other presenters included the Indonesian Palm Oil Smallholders Union (SPKS), Greenpeace, Winrock International and Elang Foundation. It was heartening to see participants from Germany, Italy, France, the Netherlands and elsewhere really engaged in asking questions, debating and developing their understanding of sustainability challenges and opportunities in the field. Similarly, it was valuable for Asian counterparts including farmers to understand that the perception in Europe of palm oil is not only negative, and that there are organisations working to support and celebrate sustainable palm oil.

For the future of sustainability within the industry, it’s essential that both ends of the supply chain come together to exchange ideas, improve understanding and acknowledge each other’s efforts.