New website maps the ground-level impacts of major brands’ palm oil use

A new open-access online tool launched today by Inclusive Development International provides a uniquely comprehensive and detailed picture of global palm oil supply chains, linking global corporations to the on-the-ground impact of their palm oil consumption.

Key points:

  • PalmWatch is an open-access online tool, developed with UChicago DSI, using advanced data science methods to create a detailed map of global palm oil supply chains. A recording of the launch event, including an overview of how to use the tool is available here.
  • The tool links consumer brands to specific mills and fruit harvesting areas, where the often devastating impacts of oil palm cultivation occur. 
  • PalmWatch shows that numerous global brands that have been lauded for their ESG credentials—including PepsiCo, Nestlé, General Mills and Unilever—have actually contributed to massive deforestation across the globe as a result of their palm oil use.

A new open-access online tool launched today by Inclusive Development International and the Data Science Institute at the University of Chicago provides a uniquely comprehensive and detailed picture of global palm oil supply chains, linking global corporations to the on-the-ground impact of their palm oil consumption, including hundreds of thousands of square kilometers of deforestation. Using rigorous data science and advanced, low-cost data visualization methods, PalmWatch traces palm oil supplies from the ground level, where the environmental and social impacts of oil palm cultivation occur, to the consumer brands that use the oil in their products. Connecting these dots means the public and corporations can better understand the impact of the current palm oil supply chain. It also means that powerful conglomerates—including PepsiCo, Nestlé, General Mills, Unilever and others that tout their ESG credentials and deforestation commitments—can be held accountable for their contribution to those impacts. 

“Big brands disclose which palm oil mills they source from but not the plantations where the fruit is grown, which is where most of the harms actually occur. PalmWatch fills in the blanks,” said Dustin Roasa, research director at Inclusive Development International. “The tool then integrates this more complete map of the supply chain with information about the ground-level impacts of oil palm cultivation—such as satellite imagery tracking deforestation—to link specific mills, suppliers and, ultimately, consumer brands to those harms.” 

The industrial cultivation of palm oil has been a major driver of deforestation and biodiversity loss globally. The industry has devastated carbon-rich tropical forests and peatlands, which contributes to climate change, pollution and related health impacts, and it is implicated in human rights violations such as land grabs and child and forced labor. Although palm oil-linked deforestation has recently decreased, it is still a persistent problem, and experts fear low production prices and high demand for biofuels could lead to a rapid expansion of the industry. Holding corporations accountable for the impact of their palm oil use is key to stopping those harms for good.  

Inclusive Development International worked alongside the University of Chicago’s Data Science Institute, with support from the 11th Hour Project and Bread for the World, to build the PalmWatch interactive platform. PalmWatch scrapes individual brands’ most recent online supply chain disclosures to compile information about the specific mills they source from, standardizing the data and making it easily searchable. To determine which cultivation areas supply these mills, PalmWatch combines traditional methods used by similar platforms (i.e., assigning each mill a catchment area 50 km in radius) with deeper analysis of road networks to predict more precisely where palm fruit is likely to be transported for processing. This approach reduces overlap and double-counting of cultivation areas, which is particularly important for accuracy in densely planted countries like Indonesia.

“This launch of the PalmWatch tool has been a long time coming,” said Executive Director David Uminsky of the Data Science Institute at the University of Chicago. “We began this work with some very motivated graduate students as part of the Data Science Clinic, an experiential project-based course where students work as data scientists under the supervision of DSI staff and faculty. This has all the hallmarks of a great data science. We needed novel efforts to correctly undertake the spatial analysis and we needed to advance visualization methods under-the-hood to build the best interactive tool for the public.” 

PalmWatch integrates its more precise and automated supply chain mapping with 20 years of deforestation data from the University of Maryland’s Global Forest Change map, revealing hundreds of thousands of square kilometers of forest loss in areas where palm oil is cultivated, as well as the specific mills, suppliers and consumer brands that have contributed to that loss. The tool shows past forest loss and produces estimates of future deforestation risk associated with every palm oil mill, allowing consumer brands or other users to assess both the historic deforestation impacts and the forward-looking risk associated with specific mills.

Future iterations of PalmWatch will incorporate geolocated information on human rights impacts, gathered from corporate human rights complaints databases and crowdsourced from local communities and their civil society supporters. Similar to the deforestation data, users will be able to see allegations of human rights impacts associated with specific mill and plantation areas (to the extent these have been documented). 

PalmWatch can be useful to a range of stakeholders—from environmental and human rights advocates to ESG research and rating firms.   

Advocates, journalists or other researchers looking into a specific plantation can use PalmWatch to identify the crushing mill that a plantation is likely supplying and every consumer brand that sources from that mill. These brands represent potentially powerful pressure points for human rights advocacy—the information provided by PalmWatch can be used to hold these supply chain actors accountable and also to urge them to use their leverage to improve conditions and practices on the ground. 

Alternatively, a user can type in the name of a consumer brand and see every mill it purchases from and the cultivation areas that likely supply fruit to those mills. This allows users to see the cumulative deforestation impacts—and, in future iterations, the cumulative human rights impacts—in that brand’s supply chain. This is critical information for ESG research and rating firms—and corporations themselves—to consider. 

PalmWatch reveals weaknesses and hypocrisies in the ESG investing industry.

PalmWatch shows that numerous global brands that have been lauded for their ESG credentials are actually contributing to massive deforestation across the globe as a result of their palm oil use. The brands featured on PalmWatch as driving palm oil-related deforestation include at least one company, Nestlé, that has previously committed to eliminate deforestation from its supply chain altogether and that receives an A rating from MSCI, the leading ESG rating firm. In total, nine companies that receive an A or higher rating from MSCI are featured on PalmWatch. PepsiCo is among those companies, despite having contributed to the most deforestation since 2000 out of all the brands featured. Two of these companies—General Mills and Unilever—get perfect AAA scores. All nine are ranked by MSCI as leaders in raw material sourcing and/or are recognized for the allegedly low carbon footprint of their products. 

PalmWatch does what the ESG investing industry claims but fails to do,” said Roasa. “The tool is able to capture and quantify the upstream impacts of palm oil use and production—something most ESG research and ratings firms fall short of because they rely overwhelmingly on company self-reporting, which is biased and limited. PalmWatch makes it crystal clear that these firms could and should be doing better.”


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