Procter & Gamble’s proud claim that nearly 5 billion people use its products is backfiring as a year-long investigation by Greenpeace definitively shows the company is sourcing palm oil from companies connected to widespread forest devastation.
Palm oil, common in detergents, shampoos, cosmetics and a myriad of household products is directly linked to a supply chain that causes forest fires, habitat destruction and perhaps even species extinction for the Sumatran tiger.
“So how does this affect you? Well, this means that every time you and your family reach for a bottle of Head & Shoulders, from the supermarket shelf to the bathroom cabinet, P&G is making you a part of this scandal," Greenpeace wrote in its report.
Greenpeace has called on the multinational company to commit to an immediate “no-deforestation” policy in Indonesia where palm oil is sourced. Last year, P&G bought nearly 462,000 tons of palm oil of which less than 10 percent is certified sustainably-sourced, according to the environmental activist group.
“As a result of rainforest destruction by Procter & Gamble’s suppliers, household brands containing palm oil, such as Head & Shoulders shampoo and Gillette shaving gel, are contributing to climate change, key tropical biodiversity loss and social deprivation," The Guardian reports.
Activists recently strung two 60-foot banners from the Procter & Gamble towers at its Cincinnati headquarters that read: "Head & Shoulders: Wipes out Dandruff & Rainforests," and "Head & Shoulders: Stop Putting Tiger Survival on the Line."
"We never do this as a first resort," Joao Talocchi, a leader of Greenpeace's palm oil campaign, told USA Today. "It only happens when we get to the point we don't see any kind of serious commitment from the company."
A spokeswoman for P&G told The Guardian that the company was “strongly opposed to irresponsible deforestation. P&G … have taken a series of steps as part of our overall sustainability program to ensure our practices and those of our partners and suppliers follow sustainable practices.”
But P&G isn't the only CPG brand caught up in the hot-button palm oil issue. Following the release of WWF's 2013 Palm Oil Scorecard, Unilever vowed to consciously source all of its palm oil by the end of 2014, while global confectioner Ferrero launched the Ferrero Palm Oil Charter to address the leading causes of deforestation.
Ironically, the rising demand for palm oil follows consumer demand for every-day products with fewer chemicals and more natural ingredients. Production in Indonesia increased by almost 11 million tons from 2000 to 2009 at a cost of 340,000 hectares of forests, according to the Worldwatch Institute, the equivalent of a loss of land equal to 140 Olympic-sized swimming pools every hour.
In addition to environmental issues, the hidden human costs of the palm oil boom remain widespread, with 3.7 million workers, thousands of them children, facing daily abuses. Furthermore, until India and China, together consuming one-third of global palm oil imports, are included in the conversation, no significant change can occur. “We have a Western-facing strategy on an Eastern-facing problem,” Dave McLaughlin, of the World Wildlife Fund, told Bloomberg Businessweek back in July.
P&G said it is committed to achieving 100 percent sustainable sourcing of its palm oil, outlining goals including 100 percent sustainably-purchased palm and palm kernel oil by 2015, and 100 percent recycled or third-party certified paper products by 2020.
"I don't believe P&G is trying to shirk responsibility here," Joel Makower, chairman of GreenBiz Group, told USA Today. But if anyone can tip the scale in favor of sustainability, P&G can. "When we talk about corporate consumers that can influence the market, P&G is one of the largest," Talocchi said.
Here’s hoping they’ll emerge head and shoulders above the fray in taking a stand for sustainable palm oil.