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Mars claims palm oil is 'deforestation-free' after ditching hundreds of suppliers

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Palm fruits by tristan tan via Shutterstock

U.S. confectionary, food and pet care giant Mars claims to have eliminated deforestation from its palm oil supply chain after shrinking the number of mills it works with from 1,500 to a few hundred, it announced this week.

The adoption of shorter, more transparent palm oil supply chains and working exclusively with suppliers that meet specific environmental, social and ethical standards has made it easier for the company to keep track of its palm oil supply chain, which the company said is no longer contributing to the destruction of tropical forests as a result.

Mars said it had reached its goal after a concerted effort to trim the number of mills it works with from 1,500 last year, and it expects to be working with less than 100 in 2021 and under 50 in 2022.

The destruction of rainforests to make way for palm oil plantations is a major contributor to climate change and nature loss, due to the crucial role of richly biodiverse tropical forests in sequestering carbon dioxide, absorbing rainfall and releasing water into rivers. But while many food companies, including Mars, have pledged to reduce deforestation through their supply chain to net-zero by the end of this year through a 2010 commitment to the Consumer Goods Forum, environmental groups have warned the progress remains slow and the large majority of companies are on track to miss their target.

Business can — and must — be powerful change agents for social and environmental change in order to have resilient, reliable supply chains and a more equitable and sustainable world.

Mars chief executive officer Grant Reid said the pandemic had underscored how global supply chains were "broken" and stressed that there was an "urgent need for business to transform buying and supply strategies and practices" if the world was to address environmental and social challenges. 

"Business as usual will not drive the transformational change that's needed," Reid said. "Business can — and must — be powerful change agents for social and environmental change in order to have resilient, reliable supply chains and a more equitable and sustainable world."

Mars said it had achieved the milestone using satellite mapping to monitor land use with third-party validation from sustainable production consultancy Aidenvironment and its Indonesian spinoff Earth Equalizer.

Barry Parkin, chief procurement and sustainability officer at Mars, said that the firm was hoping that its achievement would have a ripple effect across the palm industry.

"We at Mars have reached a significant milestone — but in order to extend this impact beyond our own supply, we are asking our suppliers that they apply these principles to all the palm oil that they source not just the material they supply to us," he said. "Through this action, and if adopted by others, we can reach a tipping point to drive systemic change across the entire palm industry."

Mars' efforts to simplify its supply chain builds on the company's ongoing effort to eliminate deforestation and degradation from the beef, cocoa, palm oil, soy and pulp and paper supply chains through its work with the Consumer Goods Forum.

Tropical Forest Alliance executive director Justin Adams commended the multinational for achieving net-zero deforestation in its palm supply chain, but warned that collective action would be needed to takle problems across the global sector.

"It is a testament to the hard work and dedication of the company over the last 10 years, and we need to see more companies embrace the logic of the three-M model — map, manage, monitor — that they have laid out," he said. "But Mars' success today also highlights the limits of individual leadership. We can only stop deforestation by working collectively in key production landscapes and across the entire sector."

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