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Category: Oil Palm Industry

The Volunteer Coordinator at the Sumatra Rainforest Eco Retreat is a young man by the name of Santa (pronounced sônta). The retreat is in Bukit Lawang, Indonesia which is on the Island of Sumatra and just north of the Gunung Leuser national park. The Leuser ecosystem is known to be the only place where Sumatran tigers, elephants, rhinos and orangutans all live together. However, current population estimates for the Sumatran Rhino are less than 100 individuals and the number of Sumatran tigers is estimated to be 400-500 animals. One of the guides who took me into the rainforest told me he was hired for a 7-day trek into Leuser in search of the elusive Sumatran tiger, but they never saw any.

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The Commoditization of the Natural Market

According to the USDA World Market Trade Report, the global use of vegetable oils has steadily increased, about 5% per year, over the last 20 years. Growing populations, increased wealth in the BRIC countries, and the resulting increased meat consumption (which requires more animal feed that comes from oilseed), have all maintained the steady growth of vegetable oils. Biofuels are also driving vegetable oil production. Biofuel production has dramatically risen over the last 15 years, going from 5 billion gallons in 2001 to almost 35 billion gallons in 2016 (Beckman, J. et al 2017). Recent biofuel increases are a response to the well-publicized connection between fossil fuel combustion and global warming. All these markets contribute to the overall positive impression that we have for natural materials. They are symbols of wealth, health, and global awareness.

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It is a well-known among chemical suppliers and users (ie-manufacturers of consumable goods) within the cosmetic and personal care industries that the notion of palm and palm kernel oils as being sustainable is precarious at best. “Sustainable” palm oil garners a higher price on the open market, satisfies eco-conscious consumers, and leaves all involved with the false impression that palm and palm kernel oils can be grown sustainably in the present locations from where they originate. The US market relies on the Round Table of Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) to certify these oils as being produced in a sustainable manner. The RSPO does so by using third-party auditors who are obliged to follow a list of Principals and Criteria set by the RSPO. These auditors are paid by the plantations and mills they are certifying. This arrangement alone is prone to abuse. There is evidence that auditors will collude with oil palm plantations to disguise the true situation on the ground (EIA, Who Watches the Watchmen, 2015). This collusion allows their “customers” to obtain the desired certification and increases the certifier’s chances of being used again for the next property assessment. This is just one example of many that shows the inadequacy of the RSPO to halt environmental and human rights abuses that have been rampant in this industry for the last two decades.

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I’m sure if you look in your bathroom or shower you will find products that have some sort of natural marketing claim. “Natural” is equated with words like “wholesome”, “safe”, “sustainable”, even “moral” in some consumers’ minds. A product doesn’t even need to contain 100% natural components to benefit from a natural claim. A green label, or the image of a natural substance like honey or coconut on that label is generally enough to drive busy consumers to purchase. The thought is, “if its natural, its good for the planet, and good for me”. Most don’t delve any deeper than that.

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