Is sustainabity under threat?

Guest post: Navigating a sustainable future through choppy waters

By Gary Lewis

- Last updated on GMT

Ripe palm on palm tree. Pic: Getty Images
Ripe palm on palm tree. Pic: Getty Images

Related tags Sustainability Cocoa Chocolate

Gary Lewis, President of NEODA and Chief Commercial Officer for KTC Edibles, takes a closer look at sustainability in the oils and fat industry, exploring some of the challenges preventing progress, as well as the positive trends.

It has been a challenging few years for the food manufacturing sector. The fallout from the coronavirus pandemic combined with supply chain issues and an ongoing recession has presented an array of problems for confectionery businesses as they attempt to navigate an uncertain future and increasing financial pressures.

About KTC Edibles

TC Edibles Ltd is Britain’s largest manufacturer and distributor of edible oils. The company employs more than 410 people across two UK sites, and supplies more than 250m litres of oils to customers of all sizes across the UK food industry each year. The company holds several industry accreditations and certifications, including The Soil Association, The Vegan Society and RSPO (The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil). All the palm oil supplied by KTC is RSPO certified sustainable.

In 2022, the company became a member of The Sustainable Coconut and Coconut Oil Roundtable and signed the Sustainable Coconut Charter - a voluntary framework which sets a global benchmark for sustainable coconut origins.

In the current economic climate, there’s a real concern that sustainability may take a back seat, and become less of a priority for many organisations in our sector.

Thinking About: Traceability

Improving traceability is one of the key challenges for the food industry, and integral to improving the sustainability of products - as well as the lives of workers across the globe. Traceability helps to verify sustainability claims, and provides accountability on ethical and environmentally friendly practices across the whole supply chain.

Pre-pandemic, there was a clear increase in demand from end customers and businesses for traceable, sustainable commodities as the market looked to support eco-friendly, ethical producers.

However, this demand has been significantly disrupted, with priorities understandably shifting - both customers and manufacturers have been more concerned with ensuring consistent supply, and getting raw materials to meet price points.

This has also been exacerbated by the geo-political conflict in Ukraine, supply chain issues, and big price rises in key confectionary oils such as palm, soya and coconut. The sustainable options aren’t always the cheapest, and as the costs of business continue to creep up it can be tempting for manufacturers to cut corners and choose cheaper, but less sustainable options. 

The Problem of Greenwashing

Another issue that  threatens sustainability within both the confectionery and oils and fat industry is greenwashing.

As sustainability becomes an essential part of doing business, many producers have rushed out promises and made claims to sustainability that they simply cannot implement or back up.

Gary Lewis, President of NEODA and Chief Commercial Officer for KTC Edibles

For real progress to be achieved in the confectionery sector, it’s crucial that sustainability is prioritised across the whole supply chain -- Gary Lewis, President of NEODA and Chief Commercial Officer for KTC Edibles

While some businesses knowingly engage in Greenwashing for reputational reasons or financial gain, it can also be done accidentally. The reasons behind unintentional Greenwashing vary, but can often be traced back to poor or inconsistent methods of measuring sustainability, which results in reports and claims based on inaccurate data and information. Other forms include more cynical PR stunts, where businesses make blanket statements on banning certain ingredients (such as palm oil) without considering the wider sustainability issues this can cause.

In addition to undermining the concept of sustainability, greenwashing prevents real, tangible progress from being made – and it’s something we all need to be wary of.

Positive Progress – Changing Perceptions Around Palm

Despite the challenges, there continues to be good progress on sustainability in key confectionery oils and fats.
Historically, palm oil has had a poor reputation for sustainability – and it’s fair to say that unsustainable farming practices have caused widespread deforestation, the displacement of indigenous people, and threatened endangered wildlife in key producing areas. This has led to many brands searching for alternatives.
Thankfully there has been a huge amount of progress on palm over the past decade – thanks to the work of organisations such as the RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil).

The good news is that increasingly, certified sustainable palm oil is becoming the standard in the UK. The proportion of UK imports of palm oil that can be reported as certified sustainable has increased from 16% in 2010 to 72% in 2021. Deforestation due to palm production in Indonesia, which produces around 59% of global exports, continues to fall – down 82% since 2012.

Palm is the world’s most efficient vegetable oil crop - producing more oil per land area compared to any of the alternatives. Today, there is plentiful supply of certified sustainable palm oil – and although there is still work to be done, palm can be a truly sustainable product.
Sustainability Beyond Palm – Coconut and Soya Oil

Despite the increased sustainability of palm, there’s still some way to go for other vegetable oils used in the confectionary industry.
Soya is in the primitive stages of its sustainability journey, with limited transparency in the supply chain - as well as a poor consumer understanding of the issues. While there are certifications in place to improve this, none are as developed or trusted as those associated with palm. Coconut oil also has a long way to go. Coconut picking is a labour intensive process, associated with the exploitation of workers and animals in some of the world’s poorest countries.

The good news is that the blueprint for sustainable change is now there, and the appetite for change is driving progress. Movements such as the UK Roundtable on Sustainable Soya and the Sustainable Coconut Roundtable are pushing for similar improvements and standards to those set in the palm oil industry.

Despite the challenges, the momentum remains with the sustainability movement – and we expect continued improvement in standards, certification schemes, and availability of certified sustainable oils for the foreseeable future.

Looking Forward – Driving Meaningful Change

Although sustainability in the confectionery industry isn’t necessarily under threat, it’s fair to say there’s still work to be done – and choosing the right oils and fats is key to instigating and maintaining positive change.

As suppliers, we must continue to play an important role in driving sustainability by taking the initiative in sourcing sustainable oils and developing sustainable solutions.

However, for real progress to be achieved in the confectionery sector, it’s crucial that sustainability is prioritised across the whole supply chain - and right now, it’s never been more important for manufacturers to choose the right certified sustainable solutions.

Related topics Regulation & safety Sustainability

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