Effort is needed to help all producers stick to green standards, rather than just cutting out those who don't, say forest experts
By Michael Taylor
KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 8 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Chocolate maker Mars needs to help more palm oil producers become sustainable rather than ditching those that do not meet its standards, environmentalists said, after the confectionery giant announced it had secured "deforestation-free" supplies.
The maker of M&Ms and Snickers said this week it had simplified and reduced the number of suppliers it buys from, ensuring the palm oil in its products does not harm forests.
It will slash the number of palm oil mills in its supply chain from 1,500 to less than 100 by 2021, it said, with the aim of halving it again in 2022.
Green groups broadly welcomed the move but raised concerns smaller farmers and suppliers that do not make the grade could be left behind, continuing with bad practices and selling to global buyers that do not have safeguards on forest protection.
"It's a good outcome for both Mars and its handful of suppliers," said Andika Putraditama, sustainable commodities and business manager at the World Resources Institute Indonesia.
"This type of strategy can only deliver industry-changing impact if more buyers - brands and consumer goods manufacturing companies - do the same," he added.
Mars may be transforming a small share of the palm oil value chain but others could struggle to source enough green palm oil if they try to restrict their number of suppliers, he added.
In 2019, tropical rainforests - whose preservation is considered crucial to limiting planetary heating - disappeared at a rate of one football pitch every six seconds, according to data from online monitoring service Global Forest Watch.
Environmentalists blame the production of palm oil - the most widely used edible oil found in everything from margarine to biscuits - for much of the destruction, as forests are cleared for plantations, mainly in Southeast Asia.
The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, the industry watchdog, has adopted stricter guidelines for palm oil production, including a ban on cutting down forests and using carbon-rich peatlands for plantations.
And many big buyers, as well as purchasing palm oil certified as sustainable, have invested in technologies to help monitor their supply chains and stop deforestation.
Michael Guindon, global palm oil lead at green group WWF, said Mars' decision to work only with suppliers that follow strict standards would help drive industry-wide change - but a wider push was needed by it and others to help everyone improve.
"The road to a sustainable palm oil sector is still long," he said.
Mars' chief procurement and sustainability officer Barry Parkin said the firm had worked to improve its palm oil supplies for more than a decade but three years ago realised buying only green-certified oil would not achieve the "completely sustainable palm" it wanted.
"Our conclusion - and that of many - is that certification is helpful but it does not guarantee deforestation-free," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The company now wants to move beyond making its own supply chain "clean" to challenging Mars suppliers to ensure their whole supply chains follow the same model, Parkin said.
If they do this, Mars will promise more business and longer contracts, he added.
Not all Mars' palm oil suppliers are yet deforestation-free throughout their entire operations, said Parkin, but they must be looking to achieve this within "a couple of years".
"It doesn't happen overnight," he said. "We're working with those that are committed to that journey. Anybody who says 'we'll get there in 10 years', we're not doing business with."
Mars' announcement could encourage others to follow, he noted, adding government regulation to force buyers to source sustainable palm oil would also help "get all actors in line".
Mars is a member of the Consumer Goods Forum that last month launched a new push to combat deforestation throughout supply chains and is working with smallholders, after many firms missed a 2020 "zero deforestation" target.
(Reporting by Michael Taylor @MickSTaylor; Editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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