Brink of disaster, for Nestle or the world?

Huge outcry, Nestle representatives being rude on Facebook, fan pages inundated with comments from aggrieved members of the public, and the media loving a story which combines destruction and social media.

A Greenpeace report started it off with their accusation that Nestle was instrumental in illegal practices that lead to deforestation, greenhouse gas emissions, and threatening the habitat of an endangered species. A campaign goes on to urge people to send a postcard of complaint and there is a parody of a Kit Kat commercial which is graphic enough to require a warning. As a result of public outcry, Nestle announce they will no longer use Sinar Mas, the company at the heart of the allegations and will endeavour to use sustainable palm oil, where available, by 2015 (my emphasis).

Some shocking facts noted by the Greenpeace campaign are as follows:

  • Indonesia currently has the fastest deforestation rate of any major forested country in the world
  • For losing 2% of its remaining forest every year, Indonesia now has a place in the Guinness Book of World Records
  • The destruction of its tropical forests for palm oil and pulp and paper industries is an ecological disaster and a leading contributor to Indonesia’s greenhouse gas emissions
  • Indonesia is now the third largest greenhouse gas emitter in the world after China and the USA

Nestle say they now use Cargill to source palm oil and it is the latter company’s responsibility to make sure they do not use Sinar Mas. Greenpeace entreat Nestle to declare that they will “cut the Sinar Mas group from its supply chain completely and become a public advocate for peatland protection and a deforestation moratorium”.

What the media saw: Nestle PR gaffe

The Nestle Facebook page received comments about the palm oil situation. A mild threat was issued to not use a rebranded Kit Kat logo with the word Killers which then led to increased ire and an apology. Two message threads were posted on March 17, one on March 18, and a peak of eight on March 19. The occasional defensive and aggressive comment by Nestle staff was not taken to kindly.

Figure 1: Number of news items related to Nestle Palm Oil over the last few days (Source: Google News)

A – Nestle says drops palm oil supplier after report
‎Mar 17, 2010‎ – Reuters

B – Palm Oil Group ‘Plans to Boycott Nestle’ ‎Mar 21, 2010‎ – Jakarta Globe

An initial news item in the Sustainable Business section of the Guardian reports the Nestle decision: The head of operations for Nestlé Jose Lopez has told Guardian Sustainable Business that he expects to eliminate all traces of palm oil from Sinar Mas from its supply chain by mid-May, providing the allegations by Greenpeace linking the company to deforestation stand up.

Then there is a casual mention of the story in an article on chocolate by resident food critic Jay Rayner: The Nestle PR disaster occurred when the company “tried to stamp on dissent concentrated around a Greenpeace video which pointed up the fact that the production of some of the palm oil they use in their products causes deforestation in Indonesia, in turn threatening the habitat of the orang-utan. Protesters poured on to the company’s Facebook page and Nestle responded by deleting comments. Not clever.” Order of the Bar 1 April 2010

CNET also reported the environmental threats but left them as an aside to a social media item which was deemed the more newsworthy story: Environmental activist group Greenpeace has long been putting the pressure on Nestle to stop using palm oil, the production of which has been documented as a source of deforestation, greenhouse gas emissions, and endangered species loss. 19 March 2010, Nestle mess shows sticky side of Facebook pages.

Only one article was printed by CNN about the commercial by Greenpeace which parodies a Kit Kat promotion.

The Google news data (Figure 1) indicates that the media interest peaked on 18 March and died down by 22 March. This peak of a few days, however, is just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak. I asked Michelle Desilets, Executive Director of Orangutan Land Trust, about her thoughts and she mentions that her involvement with the campaign against palm oil has been going on for six years.

Michelle says that “it is not about boycotting palm oil. It is about demanding Certified Sustainable Palm Oil” (CSPO). Nestle is just an example of many manufacturers who rely on palm oil but haven’t committed towards sourcing CSPO. As a cheap, versatile and high-yield oil seed crop, palm oil is here to stay. “Our job as campaigners is to try to make that development as sustainable as possible, while recognising that no monoculture can ever be considered truly sustainable.”

Michelle goes on to say that “it is the palm oil growers themselves, in this case Sinar Mas, who are doing the destruction of rainforests”. Nestle say they will switch to using CSPO by 2015 but with the caveat of ‘where available’. “There is CSPO on the market now,” Michelle says “and they should be buying as much of that as they can get their hands on. Until they can satisfy 100% of their need, they can buy GreenPalm certificates to cover the palm oil they use.”

“It is a little bit of a problem for the big companies, because to be able to say the entire line of a product they use has only CSPO may be some time away, due to lack of supply”. Time however is not on our side, “the orangutans cannot wait until 2015″.

Deforestation, climate change and extinction of endangered animals are terms that fit quite comfortably within one punchy sentence but their consequences for the world are immense.

“Forests play an important part in climate change mitigation. Forests store a vast amount of carbon. When a forest is cut down and converted to another use, carbon is released back into the atmosphere.” (UN-REDD.org) The distinct climate peculiarities of rainforests mean that their destruction has potential impact for global meteorology which has an effect on international weather patterns. These changes affect us all world wide and destruction in the southern hemisphere will not see its impact limited to just that part of the world.

I came across a sentiment by David Mitchell that was quite appropriate and pretty much sums it up: “Public limited companies are amoral. They’re driven purely by their constitutional requirement to turn as large a profit as possible for their shareholders.” Our kids may care about brands, but do brands really care about kids?21 February, 2010.

Mitchell writes about alcohol and clothes but the message is the same, corporations will try to increase profits at the expense of anything they can get away with, usually within the law. Their behaviour however affects us all and public opinion can make a difference. When public concerns were raised about Cadbury’s use of palm oil, they stopped using it. Unilever cancelled its contract with Sinar Mas which left the palm oil company with a loss of millions of pounds. Public outcry has now forced Nestle to change its working practices but in this case and many others we still have a way to go.

Our interest has to remain with a story even when the mass media have lost interest. As members of the public we not only have a responsibility but a vested interest in seeing that we remain informed.

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