Exclusive interview: Paul Gilding, former executive director of Greenpeace

Ex-Greenpeace boss: FMCG firms will drive palm oil sustainability

By RJ Whitehead

- Last updated on GMT

Ex-Greenpeace boss: FMCG firms will drive palm oil sustainability

Related tags: Oil palm

The “viciously complex” issue of palm is dependent on FMCG firms like Unilever mobilising their consumers to lobby for sustainable production across Asia, a former head of Greenpeace believes.

Speaking to FoodNavigator-Asia​, Paul Gilding, who was executive director of Greenpeace International in the ‘Nineties, said complexity in the subject has become so great that it has been hard to advance the debate.

There is more engagement on this issue among big corporates, suppliers and NGOs than there has ever been​,” said Gilding, at the opening of a new DSM flavour centre in Singapore. 

This makes it more difficult to advocate for sustainability, he says, but also more promising because investment in sustainable palm growing has increased, alongside sound reasons to ramp up production. 

Worth thinking about the social benefits

It’s not like nuclear [energy], where you just shouldn’t do ​it,” said Gilding, who is now a writer and sustainability adviser based in Tasmania. 

People are trying to find a way to make it work because of all the social benefits in palm growing, as well as the environmental benefits and the huge number of products that [palm oil] supplies​.”

Market forces will play a big part in forcing more growers to become sustainable, with companies like Unilever leading the charge to cement the marketplace for products containing sustainable palm oil. 

That will drive the response. Ultimately, regulations are going to make a difference, but the power of the big customers of palm oil is what’s going to drive this growth​.”

He argues that palm oil buyers have been the ones with the power to effect change—as long as they “mobilise and direct​” their consumers in a certain way, though that is yet to happen. 

FMCGs to mobilise consumer forces

It is also important for FMCG companies to recognise that consumers—especially those in the rapidly growing markets of India and China—don’t care about the oil palm’s impact on the environment. The onus is on them to put the score right..

It’s too simplistic to think of if the consumer does or doesn’t care. The reality is that some do and some don’t, and what the FMCG companies can do to mobilise their consumers to care is the big unknown in this space​. 

Consumers aren’t currently acting en masse on the issue, but that is the same as it was for many of the issues we have faced over time. So it really does depend on whether those FMCG companies start mobilising the consumer to care and act. They do care about the underlying issue, just not making a consumer decision yet​.”

Gilding also believes that European policies like the Nutella tax have had a significant impact on sustainable oil palm cultivation because they have “given credibility to the issue​”. 

It puts it in the mainstream more. I could definitely see Asian countries implementing similar policies."

He stresses that the region has been playing an increasingly stronger leadership role on such issues at a government level in a bid to put them on a wider agenda.

Related topics: Policy, All Asia-Pacific, Supply chain

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