It's been a challenging year for brands of all kinds, but we check the latest evidence to find out 'Are the world's biggest brands really sustainable?'

Are the world’s biggest brands really sustainable? We check the latest evidence

It’s been a challenging year for brands of all kinds. New reports are emerging, revealing what’s been happening performance-wise while Covid dominates the news. Our Environment Editor Giles Crosse asks ‘What’s the picture’?

Covid has been a horrific global experience and brands can be forgiven for struggling to operate as normal. But with COP26 coming and climate mitigation ever more pressing, excuses for missing green standards are running out.

The latest WWF report, The Palm Oil Buyers Scorecard 2021 is a very useful reference point. Palm oil is almost ubiquitously used across the world’s brands, in 50% of supermarket products from soap to biscuits.

As such, it’s a telling indicator on how seriously global brands take sustainability. Palm oil is sourced from developing countries and has links with deforestation, poor employment practice and challenges on supply chain traceability.

Therefore, it’s almost the ideal ingredient to use as a marker on how well sustainable brands are doing.

Palm oil; the reality

WWF says half the 227 retailers, manufacturers and hospitality palm oil buyers reviewed are not sourcing 100% Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) certified sustainable palm oil (CSPO). This is despite the ready supply of RSPO CSPO and the availability of several supply chain options.

A majority of respondents have committed to sourcing palm oil that is free of deforestation and human rights abuses, but just 9% apply their commitments to all ecosystems at risk. 13% have commitments that protect the rights of all stakeholders who might be negatively impacted by palm oil production.

It’s worth mentioning palm oil and its supply chain are very complex. This isn’t to excuse brands for poor performance, rather to note complexities exist in global markets. Real world analysis should recognise these.

Back to the report; 52% are taking action beyond their supply chains, by actively participating in sustainability platforms aimed at driving industry-wide transformation.

Similarly, 39% of respondents are investing in projects supporting real change on the ground in palm oil producing landscapes, such as smallholder capacity building and forest protection.

There’s more than meets the eye

Fascinating trends underpin the WWF headlines. For example, WWF reveals that just 37% of respondents require supplier traceability to the palm oil mill or plantation.

It’s a bit like saying, ‘We trust supplier assurances and our responsibility ends there.’ The problem with absence from brands at the sharp end of supply chains is without necessary clout, there’s little incentive for sustainable practices to improve.

The odd visit twice a year isn’t going to drive the message down the supply chain. And with half those who spoke to WWF not bothering to push traceability, scope for misinformation and greenwash is wide.

WWF says 12% are supporting on the ground conservation work, 17% are restoring rainforests, an seemingly inane metric when palm oil generally involves cutting them down in the first place, while 30% are supporting smallholders.

The wider picture

It’s frightening to find that WWF estimates palm oil demand could increase four to six times in the near future, jumping from 73.8 million MT in 2020 to 264-447 million MT by 2050.

This exponential growth raises concerns that oil palm development and expansion in Southeast Asia and Africa, Latin America and Papua New Guinea could exacerbate negative trends.

And, brands must balance positive impacts of economics. WWF notes oil palm expansion has delivered significant economic and social benefits in Indonesia and Malaysia, where 85% of the world’s palm oil is produced.

Such cultivation is a primary source of income for 4.5 million people, contributing to poverty alleviation and employment.

Against this, rainforest and habitat loss caused by palm oil expansion is a key threat to at least 193 endangered species including orangutans, elephants, rhinos and tigers.

Palm oil – telling the tale on brand and sustainability

WWF’s analysis and the nature of global palm oil go a long way to illustrating why sustainability and brands make for such a vexed argument.

Globally, it seems we can’t do without palm oil. Daily, you and I demand products which use it. This need isn’t going away anytime soon.

Similarly with recycling, the challenge lies in delivering true accountability when palm oil comes across the planet from distant countries seeking rapid development.

Western states send recycling to Asia in the hope it’s processed correctly, and we buy in palm oil hoping it’s been produced correctly.

Global laws are often toothless in such matters; governance and responsibility weakened by vast distances and opacity.

None of this excuses brands their responsibility for upping sustainability in global supply chains. Perhaps a true recognition of the massive complexities in this equation would be the most telling place to start?

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