Pepsi’s Continued Use Of ‘Conflict Palm Oil’ Comes Under Fire From Environmental Activists

Activists draped this banner on New York City’s iconic “Pepsi-Cola” sign on April 25, 2016. CREDIT: FLICKR/WALTER HERGT
Activists draped this banner on New York City’s iconic “Pepsi-Cola” sign on April 25, 2016. CREDIT: FLICKR/WALTER HERGT

The environmental organization Rainforest Action Network (RAN) has a message for snack food company PepsiCo: Stop sourcing palm oil from companies that bully palm farmers and cause unsustainable deforestation.

Activists on Monday delivered their demand by draping a massive “Cut Conflict Palm Oil” banner from New York City’s iconic, six-story-tall “Pepsi-Cola” sign. The stunt was part of RAN’s larger effort to pressure twenty of the biggest food companies in the world — what activists call the “Snack Food 20” — to cut so-called “conflict palm oil” from supply chains.

Palm oil is in nearly half of what we buy — from lipstick and soaps to instant noodles and cookies. It’s also used in diesel fuel. Palm oil accounted for one-tenth of the world’s permanent cropland in 2010, and the industry is rapidly expanding.

Although palm oil cultivation has boosted the income of millions of rural farmers in South America, Africa, and Southeast Asia, many activists have also highlighted abuses by big companies partnered with governments. In Indonesia, the world’s largest producer and exporter of palm oil, human rights groups have accused the government of being too aggressive in expanding palm cultivation — taking land from indigenous peoples who lack official land titles, exploiting farmers who received government loans, and destroying rainforests and wetlands that store precious water during the dry season.


Responding to pressure, many companies have released “responsible palm oil commitments,” usually promising to source oil that is certified sustainable by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO-certified) by 2020. This means the oil meets standards around human rights, company transparency, and deforestation.

PepsiCo released such a commitment in 2014, but RAN says the commitment chalks up to lip service. PepsiCo’s supply chain is vast — including plantations, mills, collection ports, refineries, margarine producers, and product manufacturers — but the company’s commitments don’t apply to all these moving parts. They don’t even apply to all PepsiCo branded products, RAN claims.

“[PepsiCo relies] on discredited RSPO GreenPalm Certificates instead of supply chain transformation,” according to the environmental organization.

Transforming the supply chain requires tracing palm oil to the plantations where the fruit is grown and undertaking independent verification of the company’s entire operations — “the only way to ensure PepsiCo is not purchasing from companies trafficking Conflict Palm Oil,” activists say.

Although PepsiCo did not respond to Monday’s events, it has responded to similar criticism in the past.

“PepsiCo has repeatedly stated that we are absolutely committed to 100 percent sustainable palm oil in 2015 and to zero deforestation in our activities and sourcing,” the company said last year after an advocacy organization released an ad slamming Doritos, a PepsiCo subsidiary, for its lax palm oil policy. The ad depicted the first step in Doritos’ supply chain as a rainforest razed to the ground.


“This latest public relations stunt, focused on fiction rather than facts, does nothing to foster positive dialogue or affect positive change. We find our policies effective and stand by them,” PepsiCo added.

The Rainforest Action Network first gained national prominence in 1987, when it convinced Burger King to cancel $35 million worth of destructive Central American rainforest beef contracts. In 1999 it convinced Home Depot to end its sales of wood from endangered forests. And this millennium, the organization has pressured and worked with a number of large companies to draft more comprehensive environmental ethics policies.