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Greenwashed Palm Oil Marketing?

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What's in a word? According to consumer groups, when it comes to marketing products that use palm oil, everything. They issued a harsh statement this week against what they see as greenwashing by brands that use palm oil.

The sticky point according to the consumer groups is the difference between the words "support" and "sourcing" and they're accusing household brands including Unilever, Kellogg and Avon of greenwashing their use of palm oil. Most importantly to brands and their marketing departments is the knowledge that using palm oil can create consumer backlash.

Whats the big deal with palm oil? For starters, it's a major emitter of greenhouse gases, the type that could see many U.S. coastal communities go under water as sea levels rise. It's most famous victim is the orangutan which are only found unfortunately, in the same places where most of our palm oil comes from.

It's use is so widespread that it can be found in your foods and detergents and if you use cosmetics, it's there too. The average American consumes 7 pounds of palm oil per year just from the imports of the oil itself. Once you add on all the different versions that come through imported foods, toiletries and cosmetics, the annual consumption per person is much higher.

Anyway, back to the greenwashing bit, take a look at the companies websites and let me know if you get the impression that they are using sustainable palm oil.

Unilever: "We will purchase all palm oil from certified sustainable sources by 2015. 100 percent of palm oil from sustainable sources by end 2012: 97 percent via GreenPalm certificates."

Kellogg: "In fact, all of the palm oil we use today is 100 percent sustainably sourced through a combination of GreenPalm certificates, mass balance and segregated, sustainably grown supply."

Avon: "Avon will source sustainable palm oil through the purchase of 'book and claim' certificates."

Notice the emphasis on the words "sustainable sources"? Did you get an impression that these companies are using sustainable palm oil? The consumer groups are arguing that users of Greenpalm Certificates should only be allowed to claim "support " of sustainable practices in palm oil production and not suggest actual sources of sustainable palm oil. Even Greenpalm Certificates themselves state quite clearly that users of their certificates can only claim to be supporting sustainable palm oil.

If you're only confused and could not form an opinion, you're not alone. The Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil was created to address huge issues of deforestation, land grabs and global warming in 2004. Created jointly by palm oil producers and the WWF, it was supposed to set a global standard and certificate for palm oil that was grown sustainably.

In its ambition to try and involve global partners into the supply chain, it created this really confusing scheme of products that it would certify. You can read about all the different options they certify here. The different types are IP- Identity Preserved where the palm oil product can be traced from plantation to end use. Segregated or SG where you cannot trace it back to plantation as it is a mix of palm oil from different plantations that are all certified by the RSPO. MB- Mass Balance which is a mix of product from certified and non-certified plantations. Then there is the mysterious Greenpalm Certificate which is supposed to put money into the hands of producers to help them grow palm oil more sustainably.

Greenpalm Certificates can presently be bought for $3 per ton if you use basic palm oil products or $20 per ton if you use palm oil derivatives. I know stuff is cheap in the countries that produce palm oil, namely Indonesia and Malaysia but I honestly do not see them doing much with those extra few bucks.

Real actual palm oil grown sustainably costs $50 or more per ton and that's only possible with their use of industrial plantations and their production efficiencies. This whole thing with the sustainable palm oil labeling is just confusing as heck but it's an issue we cannot ignore. Never mind saving the planet for our children, lets try saving it for these folks in New Jersey.

It took massive consumer backlash to get proper organic labeling into place and now is the time to demand that products that claim to be using sustainable palm oil, be set into place as well.

I've been tracking this industry for six years and it made sense six years ago to allow half-assed products to be labeled as sustainable but six years is more than enough time for any industry to get its act together.

The only question we should be asking brands that use palm oil today should be "Is it or is it not?"

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