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Back in February this year, I came across this interesting blog by the Orangutan Republik Foundation asking if Starbucks was killing orangutans unintentionally by using palm oil in their food items. It was a sensational title and an association that should make even the cleanest of brands cringe at the association between their products and orangutan deaths. Orangutans are the only great apes found outside of Africa, and their plummeting numbers are usually associated with the loss of their habitats due to palm oil plantations.
So I poked around with a few friends on the issue and lo and behold! There was an investor’s resolution requesting that Starbucks create a policy on their use of palm. The resolution itself acknowledged the devastation behind palm oil and the possible backlash from customers. It should be noted here that shareholders only issue a resolution as a last resort when the company has refused to listen to their concerns.
It was great stuff, but we were very concerned with the possibility of Starbucks using Greenpalm certificates to green-wash their use of palm oil, so we created a protest against Starbucks.
Our demands from Starbucks were quite simple: Create a policy on their use of palm oil, find a source of untainted palm oil (meaning a quality that is, without a doubt, free from orangutan deaths) or drop the use of palm oil entirely. They definitely did not include using paper offsets (payoffs) to justify their use of palm oil.
We won, partially; Green Century Funds, one of their primary investors, acknowledged the problems with the paper offsets and, to much ballyhoo, the news of Starbucks’ commitment to use 100 percent sustainable palm oil by 2015 was celebrated.
I’m a reasonable person. I know there’s no clear winner in the whole vege-oil arguments of what’s better, palm oil or soy or any other alternatives, so I usually call for the use of sustainable palm oil and not a straight out boycott. Most choices are equally bad in terms of messing up the natural environment, but that’s a whole different discussion. In Starbucks’ case though, having them stick a canned statement like, “We buy from the members of the RSPO” was really disappointing. No tangible policy has been created up till now.
Let me give you a short list of current complaints against RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) members, and you tell me if it gives you any confidence in a statement like, “We buy from members of the RSPO.”
- Goodhope Holdings Ltd., a Singapor- based company that trades on the Singapore stock exchange was accused of land grabs in West Kalimantan and ignoring the rights of the indigenous peoples to Free and Prior Informed Consent (FPIC), a major standard for the RSPO. This article refers to the area. While the allegations of child labor have been refuted by the company, the indigenous demands to have their rights acknowledged continues to be ignored.
- The same company is also accused of ignoring the rights of the indigenous peoples in West Papua.
- Lim Siow Jin Estates, a Malaysia-based member of the RSPO is accused of complicity in the devastation of the lives of indigenous peoples in Ethiopia.
- Bumitama Group, another Singapore based member of the RSPO, accused by International Animal Rescue of endangering orangutans in West Ketapang by removing their habitat, has been ordered by the RSPO to remediate all violations by December 2013.
- The same company, Bumitama Group, is also accused of removing orangutan habitats and has been charged by the RSPO in a second case.
- On a developing third count, Bumitama Group is being accused of pushing for the development of Tanjung Puting National Park, one of the last remaining bastions for orangutans, for more palm oil plantations. This push to create plantations inside protected forests is a huge no-no for RSPO members, and yet here it is.
There are many other active complaints against members of the RSPO; simply too many to list here.
By not using a product that can be traced back to a verified sustainable plantation, Starbucks continues to take a chance that their pastries could be tainted with human rights abuses and wildlife cruelty.
How can this be when its certified by the RSPO? The RSPO has a great set of standards for its members to work by, but unfortunately, their members can pick and choose what standards to work with, if any at all. Its been a constant criticism of the RSPO by environmentalists that the RSPO is a mere green-wash for companies that use palm oil.
This weeks-old baby was found dead this month in the proximity of an RSPO member’s plantation. The plantation has refuted that it died there, arguing that orangutans, being wild animals, do wander in search of food. That would be a convincing argument if the discovery of buried orangutan skeletons on another one of their plantations was not made this month. Orangutans do not bury their dead, and this was an obvious case of orangutan deaths being covered up. Who killed and buried them? What happened to the dead baby’s momma? Is anyone investigating? Do we really want questions like these hanging around when we’re trying to have breakfast?
So what does all this human rights abuses and orangutans have to do with Starbucks?
Starbucks uses palm oil and palm kernel oil in their pastries. It’s what makes everything taste so creamy and yummy at room temperatures.
Most palm oil users will plead that the supply chains involved in palm oil and its derivatives are a complex one (you can get an idea of it here). A simplified version of this was seen personally last week in a case where certified sustainable palm oil from Malaysia was shipped to Korea to be refined — along with oild from a variety of sources — into further fractions of oil before it was shipped to Australia. Did the Korean refiner make sure only certified palm oil was used? In this expose of illegal palm oil plantations inside the Tesso Nilo National Park in Sumatra, RSPO member Wilmar Group was fingered for buying palm oil from plantations that threaten the habitat of the critically endangered Sumatran tiger and elephant. Wilmar Group is no mom and pop operation. They are one of the biggest producers of palm oil globally, and if they could not control the source of their raw materials, then how are we supposed to accept a simple statement like, “We buy from members of the RSPO?”
There are clear and transparent solutions available right now for Starbucks to buy into if the will was there. I should make it clear here that not all RSPO members are useless. One producer of sustainable palm oil that I like is New Britain Palm Oil, which has led the way to sustainable palm oil despite being inadequately compensated on the stock market for their efforts. A sampling of their corporate leadership in this simple statement that bubbles over with overtones of frustration:
“Without sustainability being at the core of our business we would not have been able to differentiate our oil. Without the dedicated refinery capacity in Europe we would not be able to deliver the benefits of that sustainability. We now have a supply chain model that directly links European food companies with the people that grow the crop. Our integration brings us closer to the end user, and we can now engage in a discussion about the needs of the food industry and what we can do to improve the quality and characteristics of our palm oil, so that it can be tailored to their needs. This is a remarkably simple concept, but one that has been absent in the palm oil industry for 50 years, due to the fragmented supply chain.”
Unfortunately for us in the non-EU countries, New Britain won’t be supplying any of our brands any time soon because we, as consumers, have simply not demanded better palm oil in our products.
I realize most of us have more pressing things to worry about than whether there’s cruelty in our foods, but I hope enough people will find a few minutes to speak up. Our collective silence is cruelty committed.
Will Starbucks listen to us if we speak up? I think they will. Public outcries over their tax avoidance in the United Kingdom got them responding quickly. The protests against their use of parasitic beetles to color their strawberry smoothies got that yucky ingredient dropped real quick.
Palm oil is a tiny fraction of the ingredients that Starbucks uses. That makes the options for them simple: They can choose to pay the premiums for untainted palm oil or they can drop its use totally. If a few hundred people would care enough to ask Starbucks to remove the question of whether orangutans died for their pastries, they might just listen and remove that doubt promptly, as well.
Starbucks may be a small user of palm oil, but they have a massive reach. Imagine if all 17,572 of their stores in 55 countries worldwide posted a palm oil free sign to protest against palm oil destruction? That noise would resonate so loud that their competitors, including Dunkin’ Donuts and Tim Hortons, which also use palm oil in their donuts, would have no choice but to follow their lead.
Tell Starbucks to save orangutans today. Send them a message! Whether its a phone call, an email, a post on their facebook page, or signing this petition spearheaded by primatologist Paula Pebsworth, your voice makes a difference. Let them know we want to enjoy their pastries with clean consciences.
– Robert Hii, conservationist and development consultant