Sainsbury's purchase of fish fingers isn't enough to sustain certified palm oil
Palm oil is slippery stuff. It's in biscuits and shampoo, biodiesel and margarine, soap and, well, roughly a third of everything you buy at the supermarket. And most of it is grown on land previously covered by rainforest in Malaysia and Indonesia.
So the creation of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), where growers and food manufacturers, retailers and commodity traders can work out how to do things better should have been a good idea. Especially when the likes of British retailers Sainsbury's and Tesco kept promising that if there was sustainable palm oil out there, they would make sure they used it and bought products made from it.
The roundtable and the environment group WWF set up a certification system to recognise sustainably produced palm oil. Production began in several countries last year, and in November, five years after the roundtable was set up, the first shipload of certified palm oil arrived in Rotterdam from south-east Asia. "Companies now have the means to buy responsibly," said WWF's Rodney Taylor.
So, guess what. Nobody wants it. The stuff has been on sale for six months. But WWF reported last week that "only 1% of the sustainable palm oil available on the market has been bought."
"So far around 1.3m tonnes of certified sustainable palm oil has been produced, but less than 15,000 tonnes has been sold," says Taylor. That's out of a total annual global palm oil production of 28m tonnes.
The trouble is that the certified oil commands a premium price that allows manufacturers and retailers to advertise the products as sustainable. And few companies seem to want to pay the higher price. So the remaining 1.285m tonnes has been poured back into the giant tub of regular palm oil and sold at regular prices.
The only significant buyers of sustainable palm oil identified by WWF are Sainsbury's in the UK. The retailer has so far bought products such as fish fingers containing 450 tonnes of certified palm oil and plans more products later in the year.
If things continue like this the scheme will crash. And there will be a lot of palm oil growers in south-east Asia - many of whom didn't see the point of the scheme in the first place - saying "I told you so".
In fact, if the roundtable operated by the rules it publishes, most of its members might have been thrown out. The RSPO says that "members are expected to communicate on an annual basis their progress in contributing directly to the production and use of sustainable palm oil ... only those members who openly communicate progress will be allowed to continue their participation in the RSPO."
That "open communication" is ensured by putting the reports up on the RSPO web site. So we can all check that they are sending in their annual reports.
I wondered how UK retailers were getting on? All the big supermarkets are members of the RSPO. But several have no progress report on the RSPO web site. One is Asda, which two years ago got headlines for a promise to "ban the sale of palm oil from unsustainable sources"
Another is the Co-op, self-proclaimed as "Britain's greenest grocer". A third is Tesco. Its own website claims it is an "active member" of the RSPO and is "working on incorporating" certified palm oil into its products when they become available. So it's not exactly up to date there either.
Waitrose has not filed a report to the RSPO web site since 2006. Even Sainsbury's, the good guys in the WWF press release, are out of time, having last updated in September 2007.
In fact the only two British retailers with up-to-date annual progress reports are Marks & Spencer, which says it is selling six products containing certified palm oil from Colombia, and the electricity company npower, which sent in a note last autumn to say it had dropped plans to burn palm oil in its power stations.
Among British manufacturers that took the trouble to join the roundtable, Cadbury, Northern Foods and Youngs Seafoods have not put progress reports on the website, United Biscuits and Heinz have not filed since 2007 and only Jordans cereals are up to date.
It's not a pretty picture. Why haven't these companies been thrown off the RSPO for failing to follow its rules? There is a loophole in the rules that allows them to report "in members' existing communications with their stakeholders, such as annual reports", rather than on the website. But hiding the information in corporate reports does not really meet the requirement for "open communication".
And why join a club if you can't be bothered to fill in its simple forms to explain how you are upholding its values. Unless of course it was greenwash in the first place.
The RSPO probably only has a few months to get its act together. Companies like Sainsbury's and food manufacturer Unilever promised when the RSPO was set up that all their products would be made from sustainable palm oil by 2015 - but less than a tenth of 1% of palm oil for sale is sustainably produced. The suspicion grows that few RSPO members really take its rules or its purpose seriously.