Would You Buy A Donut That Kills Orangutans? You Probably Already Have.

Dunkin' Donuts decides to get out of the unsustainable palm oil business.

(Photo: Robert Sullivan/Getty Images)

The director of the Public Trust Project, Alison has written for Grist and Politics Daily, among others.

Huge swaths of Indonesian and Malaysian rainforests are being chopped down and endangered animals displaced and killed to produce palm oil, a product now used in approximately half the products found on grocery store shelves.

When 50 percent of the packaged products in America are contributing to the decline of orangutans and carbon-storing forests, small changes make headlines. Starting soon, rainforest-damaging palm oil will no longer be a staple in the glossy rings of fried dough served up to three million Dunkin’ Donuts customers every day, as the chain agreed this week to set a timetable for obtaining its palm oil from “sustainable” sources. 

The company did so with a little prodding from an unlikely opponent. New York state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli used some of his eco-mindedness—and political muscle—to call out Dunkin’ Donuts for buying oil from companies that clear thousands of miles of forested lands to make way for palm oil plantations. 

DiNapoli is the director of New York state’s pension fund, which owns over 50,000 shares, or $2 million, worth of Dunkin’ stock. He threatened Dunkin’ with a shareholder resolution, essentially forcing corporate officials to agree to address environmental concerns over the use of palm oil. 

Dunkin’ plans to reveal a date for changing its supply chain in its next Corporate Social Responsibility report, scheduled for publication later this year.

“It’s very encouraging to see a company like Dunkin’ acknowledge the seriousness of the problem and take important first steps to address their palm oil use,” said Laurel Sutherlin, communications manager at the Rainforest Action Network (RAN), to TakePart. “At the same time, the stakes are very high, the problem is very urgent.”

Nearly 90 percent of the palm oil sold around the world comes from Indonesia and Malaysia, and business is booming.

Over the past two decades, 6,200 square miles of rainforests and peat lands have been cleared to make way for palm oil plantations. The loss of land has spelled disaster for endangered Sumatran tigers and orangutans. The rate of decline in orangutans in particular has prompted concern that the population of great apes in the Borneo rainforest might be facing extinction in a few short years. 

To make matters worse, the razing of forested lands contributes significantly to climate change. After the U.S. and China, Indonesia is the third largest carbon polluting country in the world, and some 80 percent of those emissions come from deforestation. 

“Palm oil companies get concessions from the government, often for vast tracts of land, and all too often, they start clearing the forest wholesale and planting monocrops,” Sutherlin said. “They very frequently light peatlands on fire, which smoulder and burn and release catastrophic quantities of carbon. When they are left standing, peatlands are one of the world’s great carbon sequestering ecosystems.”  

Sutherlin said that while the Rainforest Action Network (RAN) is encouraged by Dunkin’ Donuts’ commitment, the organization is requesting that Dunkin’ follow up with a policy that outlines the specific, measurable sustainability requirements for the palm oil it will use in the future. “This is the last stand for the orangutan. We could see these incredible creatures go extinct in our lifetimes if we don’t change business as usual with the way palm oil is made very quickly,” Sutherlin said.

Several high-profile campaigns have worked to raise awareness in recent years about the plight of Southeast Asian rainforests and their inhabitants. Enterprising young girl scouts waged a war to get palm oil out of Girl Scout cookies. The Rain Forest Action Network managed worked for years to get entertainment behemouth Disney to change its policy on sourcing paper from at-risk rainforest land in Indonesia.

But for the most part, Americans don’t know how ubiquitous palm oil is—or how damaging.  

“Consumers may not realize that many of the foods and cosmetics they eat and use contain palm oil that has been harvested in ways that are severely detrimental to the environment,” DiNapoli said in a press release announcing the Dunkin’ decision. “Shareholder value is enhanced when companies take steps to address the risks associated with environmental practices that promote climate change.” 

Dunkin’ Donuts talks a big game when it comes to enhancing shareholder value, but it’s worth noting that the company has not delivered in the past.   

A 2010 CSR report from Dunkin’ Donuts announced a corporate concern about the environmental impacts of the impossible-to-recycle Styrofoam cups Dunkin’ uses to serve 1.5 billion coffees each year. “[Styrofoam is] our #1 sustainability priority,” the CSR report stated.

But when Mayor Bloomberg announced his intention to ban Styrofoam from New York City stores and restaurants earlier this year, the donut mogul lobbied against it. “A [Styrofoam] ban will not eliminate waste or increase recycling; it will simply replace one type of trash with another,” a Dunkin’ Donuts press release stated. 

Actions speak louder than words, and given its track record on Styrofoam, is it fair to express skepticism that Dunkin’ will do the right thing on palm oil? Company executives may just have to roll up their sleeves and use some old-fashioned sustainable elbow grease to convince us otherwise.

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