Sustainable palm oil: available from Migros

In 2009 Migros came in third in the WWF Palm Oil Buyers' Scorecard, a top-league ranking it owes to its proven commitment. Five years earlier, the retailer had co-founded the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), an association dedicated to promoting the sustainable production of palm oil and marketing it.


Take eight parts of vegetable oil blend, two parts buttermilk, an egg yolk for colour, a few drops of lemon juice and a pinch of salt. Heat to 60°C until all ingredients have melted. Pour the mixture in a bowl resting on ice cubes and whisk for ten minutes. Voilà, you’ve made your own margarine!
This recipe is Robert Keller's, the head of the Food division and a member of the management of Mifa, a Migros industrial company. In his mind, it proves "that margarine isn't as artificial as many would have it". In the 1990s especially, the spread was the subject of much negative publicity. First it was its trans-fatty acids (TFAs), which raise blood cholesterol levels. Then palm oil, the TFA substitute, made the headlines.

Palm oil, the answer to everything

In the 1990s the trans fat issue led Migros to substitute palm oil for hydrogenated oils. Which is why Mifa in Frenkendorf (Canton Baselland) stores palm oil as well as all the other ingredients needed to make margarine and edible fats. Palm oil is an ingredient in foods, washing and cleaning products and cosmetics. It can be found in baked goods, soups and sauces, confectionery and margarine. It is found in baked goods, soups and sauces, in chocolate confectionery and margarine. It is to be found in shampoos, detergents and lipsticks, and is increasingly used in the production of bio diesel fuel. The oil is harvested in tropical countries, and Europe, along with Asia, is the main market for it. "Palm oil", Robert Keller says, "has become the top-selling oil. In 1999 it came second to soybean oil; today it is number one." Key to this success is the oil's area productivity – one hectare produces 3.7 tonnes of palm oil a year. By comparison, one hectare of rape, the oil-producing crop most widely grown in Switzerland, yields some 0.6 tonnes of oil.

A triumphal success with side effects …

As early as the 1990s, however, newspapers reported on the slash-and-burn clearing of rainforests in Indonesia and Malaysia, where oil palms were to supplant tropical woods as a cash crop. TV documentaries showed the sheer brutality of paramilitary forces hired by palm oil producers to drive small farmers in Colombia off their land.

In 1999, the Tages-Anzeiger, a Swiss daily, reported from Borneo where "margarine replaces tropical wood as export crop" ("Statt Tropenholz liefert Borneo Margarine"). The report explained how the island in the Indonesian archipelago was first deforested and then "abused" to support overfertilised oil palm plantations steeped in herbicides. "The rivers, the groundwater and even the coastal waters have been contaminated by the unchecked use of chemicals", the author noted. The progressive deforestation, he concluded, was destroying the livelihood of Borneo's indigenous people, the Penan.

… and the reaction they prompted

Reading that article left Robert Keller feeling deeply unsettled. He decided to tackle the issue jointly with the Federation of Migros Cooperatives.

Annually, Migros processes some 6'500 tonnes of palm oil through its industrial operations. Which makes it a tiny player in a global market of 43 million tonnes. For more clout, this flyweight decided to make common cause with the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). And for the retailer and the environmental conservancy alike, this shared objective was sustainable palm oil production. They defined criteria for making sure that any palm oil can be traced back to where it comes from – or rather, where it should come from: plantations that pay workers decent wages, prohibit child labour and follow environmentally sound practices in harvesting the oil and growing new plantations. No forests may be burnt, nor peatlands drained. The land rights in favour of the local peasants shall be put in writing while wildlife conservation must be ensured as well. To enforce compliance with these criteria, the plantations' management are subject to periodical inspections by certification firms.

A fresh start

In December 2001, Migros began using sustainable palm oil in its products; in September 2002, its commitment earned it an award from the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) and the United Nations Environmental Programme (Unep) at the Environmental Summit in Johannesburg. The time to take the next step had come; the criteria that had been worked out in Switzerland needed to be applied at an international level. In 2004 the WWF along with Migros and five other members founded the «Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil» (RSPO) in Zurich. It is an association governed by Swiss law and is made up of palm oil producers and processors, NGOs, consumer goods manufacturers, retailers, banks and investors. Four years later, in autumn 2008, the first container shipment of RSPO-certified palm oil was unloaded at the port of Rotterdam.

Of the 43 million tonnes of palm oil produced worldwide in 2009, 1.5 million tonnes came from sustainable, certified production – including, of course, the 6'500 tonnes which were processed at Migros and whose sustainable cultivation was assured through the purchase of Greenpalm certificates. Migros also requires its third-party suppliers to use sustainable palm oil.

Success story for Migros in 2009

In autumn 2009 the WWF published the results of a ranking of 59 European food and cosmetics retailers and manufacturers in terms of their use of palm oil from sustainable production. Migros scored highly favourably on its commitment, ranking third only to the UK companies Sainsbury's and Marks & Spencer. It was awarded 25 out of a potential 29 points.

Even so, the Round Table has not entirely escaped criticism. In 2009 Greenpeace warned of certain palm oil producers who were not fully compliant with RSPO guidelines and in some cases continued slash-and-burn practices. RSPO has been following up on these accusations and will take appropriate action as and when necessary. Migros supports this initiative.
To protect tropical forests even more effectively, it is necessary to cultivate and use as much sustainable palm oil as possible. "It's up to retailers around the world to purchase only products which contain RSPO-certified palm oil," says Robert Keller of Mifa AG. At present, however, many manufacturers are dragging their feet when it comes to using this sustainable resource.