UK brands have failed to meet their own commitments on palm oil over a decade, contributing to the destruction of vulnerable habitats and species including orangutans and elephants, the WWF has said.
The environmental charity said longstanding commitments by brands and industry to eliminate destruction caused by their palm oil supply chains had failed, with not a single company attaining a top score in WWF’s assessment and most still having “a long way to go”.
The fifth edition of the decade-long WWF Palm Oil Buyers Scorecard reviewed the efforts that major food retailers including Marks & Spencer, Asda, Sainsbury’s, Tesco, the Co-operative Group, Morrisons, Waitrose and Whole Foods Market, as well as brands such as McDonald’s and Unilever, are making to tackle their own impacts and clean up the wider sector.
Only manufacturer Ferrero, the maker of Nutella, scored at least 20 points out of the maximum 22, with 21.5, while just M&S and the Co-operative Group scored in the 90th percentile on sustainable palm oil.
Other UK-based companies just behind the leaders include Tesco, Asda and Unilever, maker of Dove, Persil and Pot Noodle.
Firms with poor scores include Whitbread, owner of Premier Inn and Beefeater, and Compass Group, which provides food to schools and hospitals across the UK.
Retailer Wilko, a new entry on WWF’s scorecard, did not respond to the charity’s questionnaire.
Palm oil is a key ingredient in many foods, as well as cosmetics, soaps and detergents, and is even used as a biofuel, with demand for vegetable oil overall set to double by 2050, according to conservationists.
Plantations of oil palms, which are much more productive than other types of vegetable oil crop, are largely in south-east Asia but are also increasingly occurring in Africa and South America.
If not done sustainably, palm oil plantations can cause deforestation as tropical forest is cleared to provide land for new planting – hitting communities and wildlife such as orangutans that depend on them.
Clearing and burning forests and drying out the peat they stand on for plantations releases dangerous levels of greenhouse gases, campaigners warn.
WWF says the Roundtable for Responsible Palm Oil (RSPO) shows palm oil can be produced sustainably, and urges companies to buy only oil certified by the RSPO, though it also says other measures are needed, such as effectively applying laws governing land and educating consumers.
WWF-UK palm oil spokeswoman Dr Emma Keller said: “Consumers don’t want their food or other purchases to come with a side order of deforestation and destruction of wildlife – but after a decade of promises, too many companies have failed to deliver.
“UK companies must prove to their customers that they’re not selling products involved in destroying nature – and that they’re fully committed to a world where unsustainable palm oil no longer exists.”
An M&S spokeswoman said: “We’re committed to using only the most sustainable sources of palm oil in our products. We’ve removed it wherever possible and 100% of the palm oil used in M&S products is RSPO certified.”
A Co-op spokeswoman said: “Ending deforestation and limiting the impact of our products is a key commitment for Co-op.
“We’ve made great strides to source only certified sustainable palm oil with all the palm oil in our own-brand products covered by RSPO certification, and we are working towards using 100% RSPO Segregated palm oil in all our food and non-food products by the end of this year.”
Unilever said: “We’re committed to sourcing 100% sustainable palm oil and up-to-date figures outlining what we’ve achieved will be published in March.”
A Tesco spokeswoman said: “All of the palm oil used in our own-brand products in the UK is certified sustainable, and we’ve committed to zero-net deforestation in the sourcing of palm oil across our international business by the end of this year.”
McDonald’s said: “McDonald’s aims to eliminate deforestation from our global supply chains by 2030, and takes this commitment seriously.
“Since 2018, 67% of our palm oil supply is verified as deforestation-free in line with our forest commitment.”