So what happens if you already feel bad and then you feel worse because you eat some chocolate or other food that may have inadvertently contributed to deforestation and the exploitation of farmers and children?
Perhaps you look to your adorable dog for consolation (only to find that it has a carbon paw-print twice that of a standard sport utility vehicle) or your cat (that probably preys on native wildlife – regardless of what you prefer to believe)?
This may sound melodramatic but at times like these it can be hard to keep things in perspective.
Wracked with guilt, you reach for another jar of Nutella or peanut butter, packet of biscuits, potato chips or chocolate bar – only to perpetuate the vicious cycle.
This post was initially inspired by a number of media articles and blog posts that focus on ethical and sustainable issues associated with chocolate and coffee and the beans from which they are made.
The implication, of course, was that other brands do contain palm oil – even if they simply label it as ‘vegetable oil’ – and that this palm oil may come from unsustainable sources that are responsible for clearing rain forests and displacing orang-utans and tigers and other animals that feature in wildlife conservation campaigns (plus a whole lots of other endangered species that do not).
A quick search confirmed my mounting fears about Nutella’s supply chain in terms of palm oil (e.g. here).
I also found this charming video (here) featuring an orang-utan and peanut butter that could apply equally to any other product that contains the offending palm oil. (Yes, even the great Aussie Tim Tam – see here.)
Clearly some of our favourite comfort foods may not have quite the ethical and sustainability credentials that we might hope.
Anyone drinking coffee while reading this post should not feel too complacent unless they have first checked that the beans were grown, harvested and processed using FairTrade or other ethical labour and that they were cultivated organically in the shade (not full sun as is the trend in some countries keen to cash in on this rapidly expanding export market – see here).
And if your coffee is made using single use pods (innovation gone wrong? – see here), then let us at least hope that the capsules can be recycled.
Or do the self-righteous tea-totallers know if their tea leaves are elephant-friendly (see here)?
And are you drinking from a reusable sustainable mug (‘smug’)?
There are many other foods that are consumed in far greater volumes around the world that share similar concerns but attract far less media (and bloggers’) scrutiny.
Growing any sort of monoculture usually requires cleared land and the use of pesticides and fertilisers. And cash crops are not generally expected to provide food for farmers in lean years or when supply chain prices are low or their country is hit with trade embargoes.
And palm oil is not necessarily bad – depending on how it is produced. It requires less land and energy than crop-based vegetable oils, such as soybean and rapeseed, and can replace mineral oils in some applications.
It is often used in other foods, such as fried and baked goods, ice-cream and margarines, and non-edible grocery products, such as detergents, toothpastes, shampoos, soaps and lipsticks (as well as biofuel – and its waste products can provide stockfeed during droughts).
Although there have been campaigns involving uncertified palm oil (e.g. Greenpeace’s attack on Unilever’s Dove range – see here) and other agricultural products with dubious sustainability and ethical credentials, there does seem to be a disproportionate emphasis on coffee, chocolate and some spreads.
Perhaps this is because these items are luxury (or at least discretionary) goods, not staples, so consumers have a choice about whether or not to buy them?
(Even though it is very tempting to believe that chocolate and coffee are two of the major food groups – along with pizza, pasta and red wine!)
And they are being purchased in increasingly larger volumes in wealthy countries – but are made from raw products grown in much poorer countries that are easy targets for exploitation by corporations?
And their packaging makes it easier to include details of ingredients and their origins – or to add FairTrade, organic, rainforest alliance and other certifications?
And they are less price sensitive and can accommodate a modest cost uplift?
And they have recognisable brands that manufacturers and retailers want to protect?
And shareholders who want to protect their investment and dividends?
Or all of the above? (And what else?)
To help you snap out of your self-indulgent guilt trip, just remember that you can’t drive two SUVs at once or take a jeep for a walk. And even though I know there are people who truly love their cars, these vehicles do not actually reciprocate the affection.
And no amount of organic kale, bananas or chia seeds can make you feel as good as chocolate.
If we want to enjoy the good without the bad, then I guess it makes sense to practice ‘mindful consumption’ with these product lines for a start and some common sense.
Otherwise we may feel so miserable that we end up buying more of the offending items and then need really big dogs that like lots of exercise to help work off the calories (lest we put on weight and get depressed).
While better information and labelling is still required (including a clear definition of what terms like sustainable and ethical mean for these foods), will you at least try to pick the virtuous cycle next time you buy chocolate, coffee, tea, biscuits, calorific spreads and other treats?
- ‘The Definition of Success‘ article in Success email newsletter – based on an excerpt from ‘Born to Win!’ by Zig Ziglar
- ‘Authors Claim Pets Are More Damaging to Environment Than SUVs‘ by Sarah Netter at ABC News (Published 23 Dec 2009)
- ‘The guilty secrets of palm oil: Are you unwittingly contributing to the devastation of the rain forests?‘ by Martin Hickman at the Independent (Published 2 May 2009)
- ‘Palm oil in Australia. Facts, Issues and Challenges‘. Report prepared by Net Balance Foundation for World Wildlife Fund-Australia and the Australian Food and Grocery Council (March 2013)
- ‘Unilever Commits to Sustainable Palm Oil by End of 2014‘ by Peter Evans at the Wall Street Journal Online (Published 12 Nov 2013)
- ‘Palm oil labelling‘ by Elise Dalley at Choice Online. (Published 20 May 2013. Accessed 7 May 2014)
- ‘Ferrero (Nutella) changes palm oil or how to maintain its image among consumers‘ by Fanny Perreau at The Consumer factor (Published 5 Sept ?. Accessed 8 May 2014)
- ‘Tim Tams and Palm oil: Don’t forget child labour‘ by andygood87 at A Journey to the Fields and Back (Published 17 April 2014. Accessed 8 May 2014)
- ‘The Coffee Industry Is Worse Than Ever For The Environment‘ by Joe Satran at the Huffington Post (Published 29 April 2014)
- ‘How to be green – don’t drink single serve pod coffee‘ by Simon Wild (Published 09/02/2013. Accessed 8 May 2014).
- Ethical Tea Partnership website (Accessed 7 May 2014)
Categories: Sustainable procurement