Companies should hang their heads in shame for failing to resolve the palm oil disgrace many years ago. And in truth, there will be very, very few ETI corporate members not associated with the oil palm industry and hence with the multiple failures that continue to be tolerated. To be fair, many of these charges might equally apply to cocoa, tea and banana plantations. But the tale of State and industry failures in relation to labour rights abuses in palm oil is a particularly bitter pill that responsible businesses need to swallow.
Palm oil can be found in pretty much every processed food product you can think of – from crisps, crackers and confectionery to margarine, breakfast cereal and tinned goods – and of course cosmetics, soaps and shampoos etc.
But is this crop really too valuable to call into question? Has the time come for a far more ‘hands on’ approach and such as vertical integration, supply chain transparency and full accountability as part of an ethical trading commitment? Should retailers and brands be thinking in terms of buying and running their own oil palm plantations and oil mills, as the only means of regaining any kind of pride in their ethical standing when it comes to palm oil?
It is not acceptable to state a policy of not tolerating worker exploitation and unsustainable business practices if in reality those same companies continue to trade in palm oil from Malaysia and Indonesia with such little impact to tackle the failings.
To be a “clean” company, companies must either:
- separate themselves from those businesses failing to act responsibly and demonstrate how they will continue operations without sliding back into these trading relationships again
- make a public stand and actively and overtly work with failing companies to change their practices in such a way that the outside world can see the impact.
Sadly for now, I see neither of these courses of action being seriously followed. But that has to change. I invite any ETI corporate members reading this to please contact me at ETI so that we can explore a road map for ethical trading in this context for the future.