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'Sustainable' palm oil campaign banned by ASA

Mark Sweney

9th September, 2009

Advertorial claimed that controversial oil business was 'green answer' and was important to alleviating poverty

A press campaign making environmental claims about the controversial product Malaysian Palm Oil, including that it is "sustainable", has been banned as misleading by the advertising regulator.

Palm Oil, which is used in a third of all groceries, has been at the centre of an environmental debate over its role in the destruction of rainforest in areas such as south-east Asia.

The press campaign, run by the Malaysian Palm Oil Council (MPOC), made a number of claims, including that the product was the "green answer" and that palm oil is the "only product able to sustainably and efficiently meet a larger portion of the world's increasing demand for oil crop-based consumer goods, foodstuffs and biofuels".

MPOC also argued that the palm oil business had played an important role in the "alleviation of poverty, especially among rural populations".

The advertorial went on to claim that criticism of Malaysia's palm oil industry – including "rampant deforestation and unsound environmental practices" – amounted to "protectionist agendas" not based on scientific fact or evidence.

Environmental group Friends of the Earth, and two members of the public, complained to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) that a number of the claims made by MPOC were misleading and could not be proven.

The ASA said that a palm oil company sustainability certification scheme, through a body called the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), and the certification of biofuels in general, was "still the subject of debate". Therefore making a claim that palm oil could be wholly sustainable, which cannot be substantiated, was deemed to be misleading.

The ASA also said that MPOC's attack on its detractors was likely to mislead. This was because MPOC could not prove that the production of palm oil did not, in fact, lead to deforestation or environmental damage.

MPOC's assertion about helping to alleviate poverty was also misleading according to the ASA, as there was "not a consensus on the economic impact of palm oil on local communities". The ASA said that some research had shown that biofuel production causes adverse social impacts including rising food prices and has a major short-term impact on the poor.

The ASA ruled that the ad should not be shown again.

Mark Sweney is the Guardian's advertising, marketing and new media correspondent. This article is reprinted courtesy of the Guardian Environment Network.


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