The cost of consumerism: Indonesian forest fires linked to global brands

The aftermath of a peatland fire in Riau province

Slash and burn practices for palm oil led to a sharp increase in Indonesian forest fires this year. Top global consumer brands continue to buy raw products from producers engaging in these activities.

By Zachary Frye

Indonesia is struggling with forest fires and the destruction of natural ecosystems. Every year, palm oil producers burn swathes of land across the country to make way for new crops. While this may be financially beneficial, the fires are leading to severe air-quality problems.

According to a newly released Greenpeace study, big-name consumer brands, including Unilever, Mondelez, Nestlé, and Proctor and Gamble, continue to buy products from suppliers that utilize dangerous farming techniques. The report claims these companies are linked to over 10,000 fire hotspots around the country.

As of September 2019, 857,756 hectares (over two million acres) were burned this year alone. The islands of Sumatra and Kalimantan were hit hardest, leaving many parents scared or unwilling to let their children go outside. 

“I keep all the doors and windows closed and keep my two children locked up in the house,” says Yuli, a mother in Jambi, Sumatra. “I’m not brave enough to let them go outside. I’m so worried and I just hope it ends soon. I feel so sorry for the children,” she added.

Some 900,000 Indonesians are suffering from respiratory problems due to toxic haze. Despite the risks to public health and the environment, many companies continue to engage with the status quo.

Global brands aren’t doing enough to prevent environmental destruction

Palm oil is an important raw product used in many everyday consumer retail items. It is used as an ingredient in approximately 50% of all products on supermarket shelves, including in foods and personal care items.

It has broad use in product manufacturing, but environmental and social concerns have trailed the industry for years. As large plantations spring up, natural forests are degraded. Animal and plant ecosystems get damaged, and some local communities are losing access to their native lands.

The palm-oil industry is making promises to purge farms that break laws and hurt the environment from supply chains, but evidence suggests that it is not doing enough.

According to Greenpeace, palm oil continues to be sourced from producers linked to recurrent fires. In its report, Greenpeace used satellite imaging to map forest fires associated with global palm oil supply chains. It found 21 groups of palm oil producers contributed to this year’s fires, including Wilmar, Rajawali, Genting and Rachmat. These companies partner with local farmers and sell the product in bulk to global manufacturing brands for further processing.

“Companies have created a facade of sustainability. But the reality is that they source from the very worst offenders across the board,” says Annisa Rahmawati, a Senior Forest Campaigner at Greenpeace Indonesia.

“The companies responsible for the fires and those who financially benefit from them should be held accountable for these environmental atrocities and the devastating health impacts caused by the fires,” she added.  

In response to these allegations, Unilever and Nestlé reaffirmed their stance against forest fires and deforestation. Speaking with ASEAN Today, a Unilever spokesman claimed the company “has been leading efforts to end deforestation and is fully committed to working with suppliers and partners around the world to make that happen.”

They added that Unilever has “already suspended sourcing from a number of suppliers mentioned in the report” and is “reviewing the full list of companies to understand any possible links to our extended supply chain.” In line with internal policies, they say they will “take any appropriate action.”

A Nestlé spokesman also confirmed they were “aware of the allegations in the Greenpeace report” and are “currently investigating and verifying occurrences of land clearing and burning.” They also claimed that ten companies were removed from their supply chain by September 2018 for not complying with their standards.

Transboundary haze is impacting regional health

Toxic haze created by forest fires doesn’t just affect local areas. Smoke and smog drift across the region, affecting the health of communities where fires are not burning. This year, Indonesian forest fires impacted the air quality in parts of Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines and Thailand.

The inability to limit air problems contained to certain political jurisdictions makes slash and burn farming and supply chain management an international issue.

As it stands, ASEAN governments are failing to put the proper systems in place to prevent this problem. On the international stage, regional governments have a tendency to put economic growth ahead of environmental concerns.

Fire Care Community in Pakning Asal village, Riau, Indonesia tries to put down peatland fire.
Photo: M. Naswira Saputra

Speaking with ASEAN Today, Ms Rahmawati urged the region’s leaders to come together to prevent unnecessary forest fires. “If ASEAN countries want to take on the problem of deforestation, the very basis is getting transparency out [sic]. Deforestation isn’t just a problem in Indonesia. Many countries are contributing. Information is power.”

“The ratification and reaffirmation of the transboundary haze agreement is good, but the implementation, including the issue of transparency as a shared commitment” is a problem, she added.

Consumers and governments have a big role to play in making amends, but broken supply chains haunt sustained progress

This year’s haze crisis is clear evidence that companies aren’t doing enough to curb forest fires. The blame, however, doesn’t solely rest in their hands.

To make progress on the issue, governments need to increase the political will to take action, especially due to the lasting threat forest fires post to public health. Consumers also need to become more informed and principled shoppers.

With palm oil used in such a wide variety of everyday products, consumers could have an outsize role in changing corporate behaviour.

It is possible to produce sustainable and healthy palm oil. But with palm oil’s ubiquity on our supermarket shelves, it is unrealistic to expect the public to implement an economic boycott of household essentials. For this reason, government efforts to mitigate the industry’s worst tendencies will be crucial.   

Governments have the power to penalise the worst offenders and streamline enforcement. Although it’s illegal to clear land with fire in Indonesia, weak enforcement and corruption feed into the status quo. According to Greenpeace, there were no serious convictions or sanctions handed down to companies associated with fires from 2015 to 2018.

This will need to change for real progress to be made. There has been success in scaling down and pushing local management initiatives, but there is little evidence that this is a viable widespread solution. Market incentives are too ingrained in industry practice to hand over the entire supply chain to independent local producers.

The quickest way to affect change is to leverage the power at the top. Big brands like Unilever and Proctor and Gamble have the money and influence to make a difference. They need to ensure that their products are coming from certified and verifiably clean sources. Consumers and governments have the power to incentivize this behaviour, but as this year’s toxic fires crisis indicates, much more work needs to be done for this to become reality.

Correction: This article was updated to add a quote from a Unilever representative.