Palm Oil Abuses Remind us that Supply Chain Stewardship Matters
When it comes to food, consumer goods, or health and beauty products, palm oil is all but impossible to avoid. It’s used in nearly everything, which means some of the world’s largest companies are tied to it, and have been for decades.
The problem with palm oil is that it has a very negative reputation. Palm harvesters have been the subject of ire, lawlessness, scandal, and major environmental concerns since the late 1800s. Over the years, this negative reputation has come back to haunt many companies.
Palm oil’s problems become clearer
Recently, an Associated Press investigation uncovered far-ranging human rights violations stemming from the palm oil harvesting industry in Malaysia and Indonesia. Vivid accounts of worker exploitation, slavery, child labor, rape, abuse, and other atrocities have come to light, once again illuminating an industry with a storied history of similar such abuses. This time, however, the pressure is on brands to cut ties with palm oil.
The problem is, this ingredient is virtually irreplicable. Companies rely on palm oil for their flagship products, which makes it difficult to move away from it. So, instead, they commit to better sourcing practices. Unfortunately, buying from third-party sources doesn’t negate the continued human rights violations that occur at the point of origination.
The criticism many companies face is simply a better attempt to distance themselves from the atrocities of the palm oil industry, rather than demanding an end to them.
Supply chain stewardship is important
Today’s consumers are socially and environmentally conscious. They buy from brands that are committed to sustainability and actively avoid those linked to poor practices — no matter how far back in the supply chain they may be.
In the case of palm oil, it’s not enough for manufacturers to bury their reliance on this commodity. Companies need to demand sustainable reforms, rather than turn a blind eye to the reputation of the industry. That means addressing not only the human rights violations in the media right now, but also problems of deforestation, wildlife displacement, and other non-sustainable practices.
Manufacturers are intrinsically tied to palm oil, which means they’re also tied to its reputation. A company’s supply chain is a critical component of their overall business practices, making it essential for manufacturers to demand sustainability as far back as possible. It’s not easy, given their reliance on palm oil, but it’s necessary, given the demands of socially conscious consumers.
Sustainable supply chains matter
Manufacturers may feel like they’re stuck between a rock and a hard place with palm oil, but it’s an important squeeze — one that shows the necessity for change. There is a future for sustainability within the palm oil industry, but it won’t happen until manufacturers demand it. That starts by demanding sustainability within the supply chain.
As major brands pursue the triple bottom line (people, profits, planet), they’re demanding more from their manufacturing partners. Manufacturers, in turn, need to demand more from suppliers, who need to take the necessary steps to meet growing sustainability standards. Manufacturers have more power than they realize to affect sustainability within their supply chains, but only if they make it a priority. Palm oil is the perfect place to start.