Rupali Patni on Unilever’s commitment to sustainable palm oil

September 30, 2008

Concern around the cultivation of palm oil has been around for many years. So why the urgency now?

Unilever’s commitment to sourcing all of its palm oil from certified sustainable sources by 2015 represents an important step towards combating rainforest destruction in Indonesia. Unilever and Greenpeace are now assembling a global coalition of companies to support this moratorium. Thirty companies have signed up so far, including banks and investors, and a central aim of the coalition is to accelerate the development of a market for sustainable palm oil.

Concern around the cultivation of palm oil has been around for many years. So why the urgency now?

Demand for palm oil has been growing at a rate of 6% to 10% every year. The two principal causes are the use of palm oil for biofuels and the demand created by growing consumer purchasing power in emerging markets, in particular China and India (palm oil is increasingly used in food and cosmetics products). The consequences include rainforest destruction as land is cleared for palm growth, and accompanying adverse implications for biodiversity, climate change and social justice at a local level.

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil was set up in 2003, by a group of companies in cooperation with WWF to define what ‘sustainable palm oil’ meant. In 2005 the Roundtable – which includes oil palm growers and consumer goods manufacturers – published agreed ‘Principles and Criteria’ and in 2007 translated these into guidelines to ensure compliance with national laws in producer countries.

Unilever’s timely announcement builds on years of prior work and dialogue. For other companies facing critical issues in their supply chain the first step is to be upfront about admitting there is a problem. Secondly, companies should aim to engage with all the key players and collectively define the problem in a way that the company and its critics can agree on. The final step must be the creation of a solution which is credible and verifiable.

Rupali Patni,

Rupali’s expertise lies in corporate responsibility reporting, having worked with clients such as Unilever, Abbott Labs Inc and Standard Life on print and online reporting. She is also experienced in stakeholder engagement methodologies and has developed and conducted a range of engagement processes for companies such as Nationwide, Centrica and Provident Financial. Other areas of expertise include assurance and developing effective key performance indicators for measuring and reporting on sustainability performance. Rupali also follows with keen interest the growth of corporate citizenship initiatives in developing and emerging markets, and has supported Professor Ethan Kapstein’s study on the developmental impacts of Unilever in South Africa. Prior to joining the company, Rupali spent five years with Article 13, a specialist CSR consultancy, working with clients in the food, pharmaceutical and transport sectors. Rupali has a BA (hons) in European Studies from the London School of Economic and Political Science. She is also trained in facilitation and stakeholder dialogue techniques.