Unilever says palm oil deal edges it closer to 2015 pledge

By Jane Byrne

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Palm oil Unilever

Unilever said its deal with leading supplier, Unimills, for segregated certified sustainable palm oil represents a small start for the Dutch food and personal care group but takes the company in the right direction in terms of its 2015 total palm oil usage sourcing pledge.

Gavin Neath, senior vice president of sustainability at Unilever said the company was not willing to disclose the precise volumes of segregated palm oil that the food group was sourcing from Unimills but he stressed that Unilever was now ahead of its plan to derive all of its palm oil from Rountable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) certified plantations within a five year timeframe.

He told this publication that this goal was achievable, particularly now as agricommodity giants Cargill along with Unimills and another leading supplier, IOI, have been landing segregated certified sustainable palm oil (CSPO) in Rotterdam.

"We expect an acceleration in the quantities of CSPO coming onto the market, as these companies now recognise the industry demand for this form of the ingredient,"​ added Neath.

Unimills sources the CSPO for Unilever from its parent company, Sime Darby, whose plantations in Malaysia are RSPO backed.

The CSPO is processed into specialty fats that are then sent to Unilever for use in its food or personal care range.

Neath said that a great percentage of the snack, margarine and soup mix manufacturer’s products contained the oil, but he would not be drawn on exact figures. Industry experts estimate that around one third of all food and personal care items sold in supermarkets contain the controversial ingredient.

There are serious concerns about the effect of the palm oil industry on the environment, as intensive plantations have cleared habitats for endangered species like tigers and orangutans in South Asia, while also adding to carbon emissions.

When asked by this publication if Unilever had a strategy in place to reformulate its products to allow for a reduction in the amount of palm oil used by the company, Neath stressed that the ingredient offered unmatched cost efficiencies compared to other vegetable oils and the food group was intent on continuing to use it.

“Palm oil can be six to ten times more productive than sunflower oil, and if it is cultivated correctly it can be a sustainable crop. That is what we, and our partners in the RSPO, are working towards​,” he explained.

The RSPO was set up in 2004 to promote sustainable palm oil use – and changing to palm oil that is sustainable or supports green palm certification has become a major trend for food manufacturers and retailers.

UK advocates Sustain said that it is good news that multinationals have at last started to acknowledge that some palm oil production is the result of rainforest devastation but Greenpeace and others have raised concerns that the RSPO mark is not yet a guarantee that palm oil will have come from a truly sustainable source.

According to Neath, the RSPO, of which Unilever is a founding member, makes every effort to ensure that it can stand over its certification of a palm oil producer as sustainable, but he concurs that there is an element of truth in the NGOs' view of the organisation as not being as efficient as it could be.

However, he said that, currently it is the only institution of its type that exists and it is beholden on Unilever and its partners to make the RSPO more rigorous.

"It takes a while for a strong infrastructure to be built up in an organisation such as this,"​ argues Neath. "It is important to remember that it was only the back end of 2008 that the RSPO was able to certify the first batch of CSPO. Now it is certifiying segregated sustainable palm oil in the region of two million tonnes,"​ he continued.

Sime Darby acting president and group CEO, Dato Mohd Bakke, said that to date 15 of its strategic operating units have been awarded the RSPO certification, and that these have the capacity to produce over 500,000 tonnes of CSPO.

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