Palm oil industry advert ‘misled’ the public over biodiversity and sustainability

The Malaysian Palm Oil industry, currently the number one producer of oil palm world wide, misled the public by implying “that oil palm plantations are as biodiverse or sustainable as native rainforest”. In a ruling last week, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) upheld four complaints against two TV advertisements which showed palm plantations while the images was interspersed with shots of a rainforest and wildlife.


The demand for palm oil has increased dramatically the last few decades. It is found in many food products, including chocolate, bread, crisps, mayonnaise, biscuits as well as soaps, detergents and cosmetics (lipsticks, beauty creams, and shampoo).

The palm industry is considered by scientists and environmental groups as the biggest threat to orang-utan. Due to its unsustainable expansion, the Sumatran tiger and other species are also threatened with extinction. The palm oil industry is associated with human rights violations and worker exploitation.

Viewers complained that the specific advertisements misleadingly implied that palm oil plantations were as biodiverse and sustainable as the native rainforests they replaced, and challenged the claim that “Its trees give life and help our planet breathe, and give home to hundreds of species of flora and fauna”. They also complained that they misleadingly implied that palm oil benefited the environment.

Friends of the Earth (FOE) indicated that while the ad claimed that the palm oil was “sustainably produced”, while the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) had not yet completed its verification system for sustainable palm oil. It was also misleading because much palm oil was produced in a way that is not socially or environmentally sustainable.
Malaysia Palm Oil Council (MPOC) and BBC World, who cleared the advertisements for broadcast, rejected the assertion that palm oil plantations typically replaced native rainforests, and stated that the ad did not seek to draw comparisons with forests. MPOC claimed that no new forest areas had been allocated for planting oil palm since 1990, and that according to their findings, biodiversity could exist in oil palm plantations, contrary to preconceived notions about mono-crop plantings. MPOC argued that the oil palm sector was one of key sectors to raise standards of living and fuel economic growth in Malaysia, protecting, the same time, the environment.
Backing the complaints, the ASA concluded that the ad was likely to mislead viewers as to the environmental benefits of oil palm plantations compared with native rainforest. ASA acknowledged that MPOC were taking measures to improve sustainability and that many large Malaysian plantations had biodiversity and environmental initiatives in place, but said that there was also “concern” that palm oil production caused greenhouse gas emissions and deforestation and that its impact on the environment was contentious and difficult to measure.
Finally, ASA said that although sustainability was “a widely used term it is not defined by a common methodology when applied to products and hence claims containing the word ‘sustainability’ or ‘sustainable’ should be avoided”.

The advertisements should not reappear in their current form.

Reprinted from Friends of the Earth– “Greasy Palms”, 2004

Sources: ASA , Friends of the Earth

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