You can’t imagine how often I hear: ‘Do you work in palm oil?! Isn’t that the worst thing?’
I always explain why that isn’t the case. How palm oil, produced right, brings many benefits for people and the environment. Yet, there continuous to be discord when we talk about palm oil. Stepping into the world of palm oil five years ago, it was that friction that got me intrigued.
It was coffee, cocoa and tea that dominated my professional live before palm oil got me hooked. I still see myself strolling through vast stretches of tea fields in India, almost fifteen years ago, with the sun burning straight above me. I enjoyed seeing women plucking the crisp green tea leaves that I had become so accustomed to finding in my teacup. At the time, I lived in India with my family and it was the first time I visited a tea estate, not knowing that visit would determine many of the choices I would made after that visit.
Although I was ecstatic with the beauty of the surrounding landscape and the fresh green of the tea bushes, I was dismayed by the living and working conditions of the workers and their families on the estate. Their living conditions were dilapidated, wages were low, and many workers were exposed to chemicals while spraying herbicides and pesticides. It got me thinking: how can it be, that we, western consumers, care so little about the unethical and polluting production methods of products that we consume and enjoy every day?
Back home, years later, I stepped into a new sector. After ten years of working in commercial jobs in international food companies I shifted my focus from the marketplace to plantations and farms in Africa, Asia and South America. My mission was sustainable coffee and cocoa production, developing and introducing methods that create benefits for people and nature. But it wasn’t until I joined social NGO Oxfam that I zeroed in on palm oil.
Palm oil is a crop that creates discord. On the one hand, the palm oil sector is severely criticized and provokes strong emotions, resulting in consumers looking for palm oil free products. Meanwhile palm oil can be found in 50% of the products we buy in our grocery stores, due to its versatility and functionality. It is a very efficient vegetable oil crop and contributes to economic progress in many countries since it generates income for millions of people. It’s that contrast that I find interesting.
Eager to embrace this discord, I joined Natural Habitats, a producer of organic, fair-trade and sustainable palm oil. Natural Habitats’ mission is to produce palm oil the right way and show that it can be done right. When you look at reality from a different perspective, you will find ways to tackle challenges. This is when solutions will surface to improve practices, together with producers that may not have known how to best advance their methods and that start replacing harmful practices to create benefits for communities and the environment.
Our mission stretches beyond doing palm right. On top of the work we are doing with palm oil producers we also spur companies to revise their buying policies and to start sourcing sustainably produced palm oil.
But shoppers, like you and me, also need to take their responsibilities. It starts with asking ourselves some questions: where does this product come from, how has it been produced, who produced it, has someone or something been affected by making this product? Understand, that if you make conscious choices you can positively impact the lives of others.
For me, personally, it means looking at things differently, finding solutions and improving what seems wronginstead of rejecting it. Something that is wrong will not just go away. Dive in, dig deeper, deal with it and contemplate what you can do to repair and improve it.
I’m still surprised that so many people get easily carried away by media headlines, like the ones that say that palm oil is only destructive, with nothing good: “Working in palm oil? That’s the worst thing.” For many people it is an eye opener to hear that there is another side to palm oil.
I want sustainable production to become the norm. To realize it will become the norm we all need to contribute. For starters, by consciously making the right choices. I hope that our Palm Done Right message reaches as many farmers, companies and shoppers as possible. And we will all contribute to creating a better way, while, at the same time continuing to reap the benefits that sustainable palm oil has to offer.
Written by Monique van Wijnbergen, Natural Habitat’s Sustainability & Corporate Communications Director and spokesperson for Palm Done Right.
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