The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) brings producers and processors together with manufacturers, retailers, banks, and NGOs, and has advocated a “multi-stakeholder approach” to reduce the environmental impact of the palm oil industry.
The RSPO presents a highly optimistic view of the sustainability of palm oil, and Darrel Webber, its chief executive, has said the body’s consensus-driven model is more geared towards “continuous improvement” than rapid change.
Even so, a new report from Greenpeace has underscored how little progress the palm oil industry has made in distancing itself from its ignoble track record of devastation and deforestation.
Forests on fire
But while palm oil’s grim environmental credentials draw increasing attention, another closely linked industry – paper – racks up ecological black marks with far less public notice.
The Greenpeace palm oil report focuses on Indonesia, where more than half of the world’s supply of palm oil is produced. While Indonesia is home to some of the most biodiverse tropical forests on Earth and a significant share of the world’s plant and animal species – including 10 percent of flowering plants, 12 percent of mammals, 15 percent of reptiles and amphibians, and 17 percent of birds – it also has one of the highest rates of deforestation, losing around one million hectares of forest early.
One of the main objectives of the RSPO has been to curb the fires linked with palm oil production.
The fastest and cheapest way for palm oil producers to clear land for oil palms has traditionally been to burn down the forests already occupying the land, to catastrophic effect: 80 percent of the fires in Indonesia are blamed on oil palm fields, and the country lost approximately 26 million hectares of tree cover (meaning 16 percent of its total forest land) between 2001 and 2018.
This burning destroys the diverse tropical forests but also releases gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
While the RSPO claims to hold its members to 'environmental and social criteria' in order to claim their products as sustainable, Greenpeace’s report has unmasked a much more somber reality. Despite intense criticism for purchasing palm oil linked to fires in Indonesia, many of the world’s largest food companies have failed to distance themselves from culpable producers.
According to the group, global food brands such as Unilever, Mondelez, and Nestlé all bought palm oil linked to this year’s spate of fires in Indonesia, as did traders from Cargill, Golden Agri-Resources (GAR), and Wilmar.
Greenpeace found that all of the major companies it evaluated – despite being RSPO members – were linked to anywhere between 6,300-9,900 fire “hotspots” in 2019. Each had links to tens of producers facing government or judicial action over the fires they had set.
Greenpeace’s report adds to a mountain of evidence surrounding the unsustainable palm oil sector, but while there’s no disputing the damaging effects of oil palm monoculture, another serial offender – paper – has quietly passed under the radar, despite the fact that many of the same companies are involved in its production.
Paper production has arguably just as big an environmental effect as palm oil. Even so, and despite the fact that the environmental damage caused by the palm oil and paper industries are being committed in the same places at the same time and on the same scale, paper has largely skirted public scrutiny.
This reality puts the lie to the idea of a “paperless revolution.” Although per capita paper consumption is declining in the USA and Europe, consumption is simply shifting, rather than reducing, especially with companies looking for alternative biodegradable alternatives to single-use plastic.
According to the UN Food and Agricultural Organization, 35-40 percent of trees cut for industrial purposes become paper products. While some of this wood comes from ‘forestry practices’, much of it comes from unsustainable deforestation in places like Indonesia.
The overlap between the palm oil and paper industries is demonstrated clearly by the global forestry giant Sinar Mas, parent group of both palm oil trader GAR (spotlighted in Greenpeace’s report) and Asia Pulp and Paper (APP), Indonesia's largest pulp and paper company.
Allegations surrounding the company’s role with the destruction of forests for pulpwood previously forced Greenpeace to cut ties with the company after several years of collaboration on sustainability initiatives.
Sinar Mas’ footprint extends far past the tropical forests of Indonesia, with environmental controversies reaching well beyond Asia to make themselves felt as far afield as Europe, Canada, and Brazil.
To try to distance themselves from its name and negative associations, Sinar Mas's operations in Canada, for example, are grouped under a Netherlands-based company called ‘Paper Excellence.’
While ostensibly different entities, both APP and Paper Excellence are owned by the family of Sinar Mas founder Eka Tjipta Widjaja, one of Indonesia's richest men until his death early this year.
Paper Excellence's first Canadian purchase, in 2007, was a pulp mill in Meadow Lake in Saskatchewan. From there, Paper Excellence carried out a string of purchases of existing assets, taking aim at Canada and Brazil.
These acquisitions are purportedly part of the company’s strategy to ensure a steady supply of pulp for the production of paper and other products for customers in Asia. The company clearly sees the pristine forests in both Canada and Brazil as ripe for additional mills and production facilities.
While Sinar Mas may have used a different name for its new markets, its subsidiaries do not appear to have changed their attitudes towards responsible forestry. In fact, one of Paper Excellence’s most recent claims to fame is its close relationship with the Bolsonaro family in Brazil, one of the worst global actors when it comes to protecting natural forests.
While Western consumers are quick to speak out over deforestation in Southeast Asia, are we prepared to challenge global conglomerates once they start doing business in our own backyards?
The global outcry over palm oil has forced at least some action to clean up the palm oil supply chain. To save our planet’s tropical forests, it is high time to take action on paper as well.
Natasha Foote is an environmental journalist and writer, specialising in conservation and agriculture. She holds a BSc in Biological Sciences and an MA in Environment, Development and Policy.