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Find Out Which Companies Responsibly Source Palm Oil (You Might Be Surprised)

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Find Out Which Companies Responsibly Source Palm Oil (You Might Be Surprised)

This month, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) published an illuminating reportFries, Face Wash, Forests—that reveals just how committed companies are to using palm oil responsibly in their products.

Palm oil can be produced without deforestation—and many companies have begun to make public commitments to use deforestation-free palm oil in their products.
Photo credit: Shutterstock

Palm oil is an edible vegetable oil derived from pulping the fruit of oil palms originally native to Africa. It has been commonly used as cooking oil internationally, and its consumption is on the rise. The recent rise in the use of palm oil by the U.S. food industry has resulted largely from its affordable price and the fact that it does not contain trans fats.

However, palm oil production poses a significant threat to global natural resources. Conventional palm oil “is produced in ways that involve the destruction of tropical forests and peatlands, adding to global warming emissions and reducing habitat for many already threatened species,” explained UCS.

“Tropical forests are cut down and carbon-rich swampy areas known as peatlands are drained to establish large plantations of oil palm trees,” UCS further stated in their report. “Destruction of these ecosystems devastates endangered species' habitats and contributes to climate change by releasing global warming emissions into the atmosphere. Tropical deforestation—to which expanding palm oil production contributes substantially—accounts for about 10 percent of annual carbon dioxide emissions.

“Tropical forests are cut down and carbon-rich swampy areas known as peatlands are drained to establish large plantations of oil palm trees,” says UCS.

“The good news is that palm oil can be produced without deforestation—and many companies have begun to make public commitments to use deforestation-free palm oil in their products. In fact, 2014 was a historic year for businesses addressing the risks of buy­ing palm oil irresponsibly,” the report indicates. “Many companies have already pledged to only purchase palm oil produced using these high­er standards of deforestation-free and peat-free palm oil. These pledges were bolstered by commitments from some of the largest palm oil traders that supply palm oil to large American brands.”

Some developments in the past several years include efforts by several industry leaders to use eco-friendly palm oil. Overall, Nestlé received the highest score in the report for the responsible use of palm oil. The companies Col­gate-Palmolive, Henkel, Dunkin’ Brands and Safeway have all demonstrated indus­try leadership as well, according to UCS.

All of the companies reviewed in the April 2015 report received one of four color-coded ratings: green for a strong commitment, yellow for some commitment, pink for little commitment and orange for no commitment. The companies were divided into four categories: fast food, store brands, packaged foods and personal care.

Of the fast food companies, Dunkin’ Donuts was the only one to receive a green seal of approval for strong commitment. Photo credit: Union of Concerned Scientists

Of the fast food companies, Dunkin’ Donuts was the only one to receive a green seal of approval for strong commitment. Similarly, in the store brands category, only Safeway received a strong commitment rating for its "O Organics" in-house brand. Among the packaged food companies, Nestle, Danon, Kelloggs, Unilever, ConAgra Foods, Pepsico and General Mills all received high marks awarding them green ratings that reflected strong commitment. For the personal care category, Colgate-Palmolive, Henkel, L’Oreal, P&G and Reckitt Benckiser received green ratings for making strong commitments to using palm oil that does not contribute to deforestation.

Of the 30 companies included in the analysis, a total of 21 improved their commitment and/or sourcing practices when it comes to using palm oil. Of those 21 companies, eight made full commit­ments to protecting forests and peatlands. As part of that commitment, they are providing full disclosure of their palm oil supply chain. Five other companies said they have pledged to use eco-friendly palm oil in their products, but have not yet followed accountability measures ensuring that their palm oil is in fact produced without contributing to deforestation.

Nestlé received the highest score overall in the report for the responsible use of palm oil. Photo credit: Union of Concerned Scientists

Concerted efforts to raise awareness about palm oil's impacts by UCS, Environmental Defense Fund and other advocacy groups have started to pay off. The New York Declaration on Forests at the UN Climate Summit brought the issue of palm oil deforestation to the attention of governments and companies who have endorsed the goal to end global deforestation by 2030.

However, there is still much work to be done. The majority of American companies that use palm oil “still lack commitments to ensure the palm oil in the prod­ucts they sell is deforestation- and peat-free. Our analysis shows wide disparity among companies, both within and among sectors,” according to the UCS.

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In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

But the pair are only the frontmen of a much larger movement which has been in development for several years. In addition to a panel of experts who will decide on the winners, the prize's formation took advice from the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and the Jack Ma Foundation.

With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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