Old Chang Kee and Polar Puffs garner negative attention for using palm oil

Old Chang Kee and Polar Puffs have come grabbed some attention online after a group of students known as Students of Singapore (SOS) Against Haze created an online petition calling for the brands to stop contributing to forest fires. This is through their use of palm oil from “potentially unsustainable” sources.

According to the petition titled "Tell Old Chang Kee & Polar Puffs to stop frying our rainforests", both companies use palm oil originating from "potentially unsustainable plantations and supply chains". This was not only clearly stated on the cooking oil tins at Old Chang Kee, but also revealed during a discussion with Polar Puffs, the petition stated.

The petition had 3,850 out of 5,000 signatures at the time of writing.

SOS Against Haze has been unsuccessful in its attempts to contact Old Chang Kee and Polar Puffs. According to the petition, "multiple emails, calls and even a visit to Old Chang Kee's headquarters were ignored. Polar Puffs believes that sustainable palm oil is too expensive, which is not the case."

In a statement to Marketing, Old Chang Kee's spokesperson said it is qualifying oil suppliers of the sustainable oil option to ensure that their cooking oil can meet both the healthier oil endorsement by the Health Promotion Board, and the RSPO certification on sustainable cooking oil. The spokesperson added that many years back, it took the initiative to use healthier oil endorsed by Health Promotion Board with the Healthier Choice symbol. It then conducted extensive trials to ensure that using healthier oil does not compromise its food quality and taste.

"Meeting our consumers’ needs, having creative and innovative products, improving the quality of our products and being socially responsible are our key business goals. Despite the many challenges and limitations, our promise to consumers is that we will continue to source for healthier and socially responsible cooking oil, without compromising on the food quality and taste," the spokesperson said.

In a statement on its website, Polar Puffs assured its customers that its products are butter baked and not oil fried. "The use of vegetable oil is incidental and accounts for less than 0.6% of our ingredients," the statement read. Polar Puffs added that it currently uses vegetable oils that are from sustainable sources, and that high quality New Zealand butter is used for its rolls, cakes and pastries.

One in five consumers hold brands using palm oil products responsible for the haze

According to YouGov data, one in five consumers across Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore hold brands which use palm oil products responsible for the haze. In a conversation with Marketing, Stephen Tracy, YouGov’s head of Singapore said:

This suggests a clear reputational risk for brands involved in palm oil production in the region.

Tracy added that palm oil is a sensitive issue for many consumers, particularly those who suffer as a result of the haze.

“As supply chains come under the spotlight, there are a number of potential risks for brands who have a traceable link to deforestation as part of palm oil production,” Tracy said.

Other YouGov data indicate that involvement in palm oil production also has the potential to influence consumers’ purchasing decisions as well as their perceptions of a brand. For example, 72% of UK consumers say they would be concerned and half say that they would consider switching their bank/building society if it was found to be supporting companies who cut down trees to assist in palm oil production.

“Brands whose supply chain could be implicated in palm oil production and/or the haze therefore risk not just reputational damage but also a decline in their customer base,” Tracy added.

Not a new issue

The issue of using unsustainable palm oil by brands is not a new one. Just last month, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) released a report showing that the issue “remains prevalent among brands in Southeast Asia”. The report added that brands in Singapore are no different, with two-thirds of home grown brands not being transparent about their palm oil usage. Meanwhile, a larger proportion (78%) does not source sustainable palm oil.

This was according to the WWF Palm Oil Buyers’ Scorecard for Malaysia and Singapore 2017, which is an initiative to introduce transparency into Southeast Asia’s palm oil industry. According to the scorecard, non-disclosure and lack of action was higher among brands in Singapore and Malaysia, compared to global brands.

The report found 30% of regional brands responding to WWF and only three have public commitments on palm oil use. In comparison, global brands had an 80% response rate and over 60% have palm oil commitments.

Brands cited internal factors such as capacity issues and higher costs as obstacles in the switch to sustainable palm oil. However, WWF counter highlighted that current industry rates for sustainable palm oil options start at less than $0.01 more per litre. While consumer demand plays a key role in sustainability decisions by brands, there is a perceived lack of demand for sustainable palm oil by customers in Singapore.

In response to these findings, WWF-Singapore launched a campaign encouraging consumers to send emails to brands via palmoil.sg. Through these emails, local CEOs are urged to take a pledge to be transparent with their palm oil use and start taking steps to source sustainable palm oil.

Since the campaign launched, Bee Cheng Hiang, Commonwealth Capital and Tung Lok have made commitments to begin their journey on sustainable palm oil by signing WWF’s pledge.

Meanwhile, two local companies, namely Denis Asia Pacific (Ayam Brand) and Wildlife Reserves Singapore were said to be in the lead for sustainable palm oil use. According to the report, both are already sourcing sustainable palm oil and are involved in industry-led platforms such as SASPO (Southeast Asia Alliance for Sustainable Palm Oil).

Unsustainable palm oil production has been linked to negative environmental impacts such as deforestation and the haze. Despite this, the report added that it remains the world’s most efficient and flexible oil, used widely in F&B, household and cosmetic products.

Published by WWF, the Scorecard assesses the buying and sourcing of palm oil by local retailers, manufacturers and food service brands. The study assessed 47 local companies across Malaysia and Singapore. There were 27 Singapore companies, selected based on criteria such as the use of palm oil, market leadership, as well as crowd sourced suggestions from members of the public.