3 Steps on the Path to More Sustainable Palm Oil

May 11, 2016 12:40 PM ET

A Taste of General Mills

Palm oil is a versatile ingredient, found in many household and food products, including from General Mills.

Unfortunately, although exceptionally useful, palm oil is also associated with major sustainability impacts where the oil palms are grown: chiefly Indonesia and Malaysia, but also in West/Central Africa and Latin America.

New oil palm plantations have already replaced natural forests on a significant scale, with correspondingly serious consequences for biodiversity, including iconic forest species such as orangutans, as well as wider environmental effects.

Conversion of forests to oil palm plantations is also sometimes a cause of severe conflict with local communities, where rural peoples’ land rights and livelihoods may not be adequately recognized.

The burning of forests and peat soils may also take place as a precursor of conversion to plantations, a process that contributes to the pace of climate change; over the last year the world has again witnessed particularly serious fires across Indonesia.

General Mills – along with some other consumer goods companies – has recognized that these environmental and social impacts are unacceptable, and therefore has been trying to put in place mechanisms to ensure that the palm oil in its products comes from acceptable plantations.

What this really amounts to is taking responsibility for the raw materials in the company’s products, a process known as responsible sourcing. In essence, General Mills wants to ensure that any plantation origin for its palm oil purchasing is in line with the company’s sustainability commitments.

This isn’t perhaps as simple as it sounds.

Not in the least, because palm oil may have several processing stages, where the oil from many different origins can be mixed, making it challenging for a consumer goods company to identify its own specific sources of palm oil.

General Mills has partnered with the non-profit organization I work for, Proforest, to address these practical challenges.

We’ve developed a clear responsible sourcing pathway for companies to follow, and General Mills has already taken three significant steps:

- The first is to identify a complete list of palm oil mills (where the palm fruits are crushed) that could be a source of raw material for the company – this provides a clear scope for the company’s efforts.

- The second step is to buy only certified palm oil. This ensures that the volume of palm oil being purchased by General Mills is fully covered by palm oil mills where the social and environmental performance of the supplying plantations is checked by an independent inspector. Note that around 15 percent of global palm oil volumes have been certified as sustainable to date.

- Third, General Mills also has committed to only buy palm oil products from suppliers that already have an active sustainability process applying to all palm oil mills that they trade with, including a program of regular field checks. This step is critical because the certification process itself does not fully prevent the conversion of forests to plantations, and because the product mixing in the processing stages means that much of the palm oil entering the wider supply chain is actually uncertified.

Despite this impressive level of commitment so far, there is no doubt that General Mills can now do even more to get closer to its palm oil sourcing, by continually seeking more information about specific plantation sources and by working more closely with its suppliers.

By going back to the source of the palm oil in General Mills’ products, the company can ensure that it plays its part in moving the palm oil industry towards a more sustainable future.

Editor’s note: For more information about General Mills’ commitment to sustainably sourcing palm oil, read pages 41-42 of our 2016 Global Responsibility Report. Neil Judd is a director and co-founder of Proforest. He has over 25 years of experience in the implementation of practical approaches to sustainability, mainly in the agricultural and forestry sectors. He now focuses on working with businesses to implement responsible sourcing for agricultural and forestry commodities.