Let’s talk about palm oil. Palm oil is a cheap-to-produce, relatively healthy, highly prevalent but rarely discussed ingredient found in anything from lipsticks and lotions to cookies. With global palm oil consumption exceeding 64 million metric tons per year, palm oil deforestation is one of the leading contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, tropical deforestation is one of the driving factors in rapidly progressing climate change, accounting for ~10% of total global warming. 
Where does it come from and why do we care? Over 80% of the world’s Palm Oil supply is produced in Indonesia and Malaysia, home to rich biodiversity and rainforests that are classified as high carbon stock (HCS) forests. 
Deforestation for palm oil production most frequently occurs through a process of burning peat (thick layers of decayed vegetation coating the forest floor), which releases extremely high levels of carbon dioxide – one hectare of burned peatland can release up to 6,000 metric tons of C02. These emissions are damaging to the ozone and result in notoriously high air pollution in neighboring cities, not to mention the rampant destruction and displacement of native wildlife and biodiversity. 
Why does Unilever care about climate change? Unilever purchases ~3% of global palm oil production (~1.5 million tons annually), making it the world’s top consumer of palm oil. Accordingly, they have been at the forefront of corporate responsibility and commitment to sustainability. In 2004, Unilever helped found the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), a not-for-profit initiative that is taking an active role in shaping global standards for the production of sustainable palm oil. Beginning in 2009 Unilever publicly committed to sustainably sourcing their palm oil. They set a target to be totally RSPO certified by 2015 and achieved that 3 years ahead of schedule.  However, A RSPO-certified processor of palm oil can source materials from multiple plantations without confirming the sustainability of the supply [for more info on RSPO supply chains, read here]. 
How palm oil makes its way from a plantation in Indonesia to your cookie:
What’s left to be done? Unilever’s progress is admirable, but like many large corporations the majority of their RSPO-certified palm oil is backed by something called GreenPalm Certificates. Referring back to the supply chain of palm oil, the issue of deforestation stems from the original farmer, but is traded upstream through manufacturers, processors, and distributors before hitting the shelf in the form of a Unilever product. While Unilever is admirably able to vouch for the sustainability of 19% of their oil, this means that the remaining 81% covered by GreenPalm certificates is untraceable and is likely a product of deforestation. 
Given that consumer awareness of the issue is relatively low, and upstream partners in the supply chain have little stake in the traceability of their palm oil, the burden falls on the consumer goods companies to help stoke sufficient demand to warrant a change in the supply chain.
In its efforts to achieve 100% identity-preserved palm oil by 2020, Unilever’s approach has been to go directly to the supply countries and build their own facilities.
In 2015 Unilever invested 130 million Euros to build and staff an independent production facility in North Sumatra. By partnering with local smallholders (small, independent plantations) to improve yields in a sustainable manner, Unilever is simultaneously taking control of their own supply chain process and helping mitigate impacts of global warming. 
- Consumers don’t care enough about the sustainability of their products to tolerate price increases. In this case, either Unilever will need to absorb the extra costs or forego their efforts to stem deforestation.
- While the recent 130 million euro investment in supply chain traceability seems admirable, compared to Unilever’s consolidated net profit of ~$5.3 billion they probably have some room to increase investment.
- Enforce more stringent certification standards for RSPO members
- Consider eliminating the GreenPalm program – it was a good way to start off, but is it really effective in the long term? (read more here)
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 Statista 2016: Consumption of vegetable oils worldwide from 2012/13 to 2016/2017, by oil type (in million metric tons).
 Kodas, Michael. (2014, November 16). Palm Oil Production Poses Problems for the Climate.
 Unilever Sustainable Palm Oil Sourcing Policy – 2016.
 Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). 2016. RSPO Supply Chain Systems Overview.