Thursday, May 13, 2010

Fair trade maybe, but what about the use of palm oil

Bluestocking member, Liza Beinart, originally wrote this letter to Tim Costello, Director of World Vision. I'm posting it here (with her permission) to highlight some of the challenges with fair trade labelling and certification.

Dear Mr Costello,

I read with interest the story in The Age about your meeting with Arnott’s about the use of child labour to produce cocoa in west Africa. Congratulations for advocating for such an important issue.

I wonder if you are aware that Arnott’s products contain palm oil. As I’m sure you know, palm oil is sourced from South-East Asia and palm oil crops have contributed not only to massive deforestation, but also to the loss of natural habitat for orang-utans, one of the world’s most endangered species. Palm oil is used in products such as tim tams and mint slice biscuits.

I raise this because I do not think that the removal of child labour from the production of cocoa for these biscuits necessarily means the products – or Arnotts for that matter – will have earned an ethical certification label that “ensure[s] products met agreed environmental, labour and developmental standards”. Ensuring that “the chocolate in these biscuits has been produced ethically” is not enough to make this an ethical product – Arnott’s would have to address their use of palm oil, the trade of which is causing devastating environmental and ecological damage, and basically wiping out the orang-utan population.

I understand that World Vision’s focus is not ecology but children (I work for a children’s rights organisation myself) – but I think it’s important to avoid stamping “ethically produced” labels on products simply because one aspect of the production is ethical. Ethical production is a multi-layered issue and we run the risk of letting companies off the hook lightly if we applaud them for only addressing one small part of the problem. Likewise, it runs the risk of misleading consumers to believe that they are buying “ethical” products, when in fact they are only buying a product that has responded to one ethical issue. Yes, they should get part credit, but not resounding approval with a label saying “ethically produced”. It’s like calling washing powder “environmentally friendly” because the box it comes in is made from recycled cardboard – even though it might be full of noxious chemicals that pollute our waterways.

I would be interested in your perspective on this.

Kind regards

Liza Beinart
Perth, WA

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