By Michael Taylor
KUALA LUMPUR - Green certification is not a silver bullet to end deforestation, leaving many global household brands struggling to meet pledges to halt forest-clearing linked to the production of palm oil and other ingredients by 2020, said a body grouping those firms.
After environmentalists staged a series of high-profile campaigns against large corporate users of agricultural commodities, urging them to protect forests, the 400 members of the Paris-based Consumer Goods Forum (CGF) agreed in 2010 to use only supplies that do not contribute to deforestation by 2020.
They said they would meet that goal by responsible sourcing of commodities such as soy, palm oil, paper and pulp, and beef.
However, the non-binding commitment - backed by Cargill, Kellogg Co, Mars, Mondelez International, Nestle, PepsiCo and Unilever among others - left implementation to individual companies and lacked a clear reporting process, said Ignacio Gavilan, the CGF's sustainability director.
"It was needed and important. Companies have made progress," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone. "(But) it was probably not properly set up for success."
"We have found that certification is a tool, but not the comprehensive solution the world needs to end deforestation," said Gavilan, adding that such schemes were not "the silver bullet".
The Thomson Reuters Foundation asked 12 CGF members if they remained committed to the no-deforestation pledge. Of those, four have indicated the 2020 deadline would likely be missed.
At least five other multinationals were unable to estimate whether the CGF goal would be met in time.
Palm oil is the world's most widely used edible oil, found in everything from margarine to soap, but it has faced scrutiny from green activists and consumers, who have blamed its production for forest loss, fires and worker exploitation.
Industry watchdog, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, whose members include consumer companies, retailers, traders and palm growers, certified a fifth of last year's global palm oil output of 68 million tonnes as sustainable.
But the industry still faces challenges and this year's forest fires in Southeast Asia - caused largely by slash-and-burn clearance of land and forests for palm oil and paper and pulp production, as well as farming - were the worst since 2015.
Palm oil from an illegal plantation inside an Indonesian forest reserve has found its way into the supply chains of large consumer brands, a U.S.-based green group said in September.
The CGF's 2020 pledge "brought people together and put the issues on the table", as well as supporting the development of tools to help firms act on deforestation risks, said Gavilan.
They include guidelines on purchasing sustainable palm oil or soy and calculating how much of those ingredients enter supply chains.
"The singular focus on certification incentivised us all to think a little bit small," said Gavilan, who has worked in sustainability for almost 18 years at major companies like fast-food chain McDonald's Corp and miner Anglo American.
"Even if all 400 (CGF) members certify 100% of their supply chains, deforestation will still happen," he added.
The CGF, a member-funded organisation led by the CEOs of retailers and manufacturers, seeks solutions to major challenges that companies cannot tackle alone, including deforestation, food safety and forced labour.
Rather than setting a new deadline for companies to end deforestation, Gavilan encouraged them to send a unified message to palm oil traders and suppliers, urging them to adhere to sustainable practices throughout their businesses.
Some suppliers are selling certified green palm oil to customers while still burning or logging forests to produce palm oil for clients that have no standards, he explained.
"We need to go to the ... palm oil producers in Indonesia and ideally speak with one voice, and say 'look, this sort of double standard of having two businesses, cannot work - we need to have a clean business from you'," he added.
Companies that buy palm oil also need their sustainability teams to work more closely with procurement departments to make goals a reality, he said.
And buyers should publicly support and source from palm-growing regions striving to ensure sustainable practices are followed by all plantations on their territory, Gavilan said.
"Instead of certifying farmer by farmer, you create an entire region that you can source from and it's safe," he said.
"Alone, we are never going to solve this by ourselves. It's a question of scaling up the areas that are doing a good job."