SINGAPORE: Ten more Singapore food and beverage (F&B) businesses have joined the Southeast Asia Alliance for Sustainable Palm Oil (SASPO), tripling the number of members since its launch in 2016.
These 10 businesses include Crystal Jade, Bee Cheng Hiang, Tung Lok,F&N and the parent company of PastaMania and Udders Ice Cream.
The addition of these 10 companies take the total number of local businesses that have publicly committed to 100 per cent sustainable palm oil to 15, accounting for more than 80 brands and 200 F&B outlets across the country.
SASPO is the first private sector-led initiative in the Southeast Asia region to address the importance of sourcing for sustainable palm oil in a bid to tackle the haze issue, which has crippled the region in the past.
It was launched by WWF and five founding companies comprising Ayam Brand (Denis Asia Pacific), Danone, IKEA, Unilever and Wildlife Reserves Singapore.
“For a business, changing palm oil sourcing is always a commitment, a joint effort and a journey. But every step taken shows other businesses in Singapore and the region that it can be done. Over time, this pushes the industry towards using a hundred per cent sustainably-sourced palm oil,” said Mr Hervé Simon, Group Marketing Director of Denis Asia Pacific, which produces Ayam Brand.
AWARENESS STILL LOW, BUT CONSUMER RESPONSE ENCOURAGING
TungLok Restaurants president and CEO Andrew Tijioe said sourcing for palm oil from plantations approved by the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil was not costly.
Members of the global certification body have to comply with stringent rules, like not using the slash-and-burn technique to clear forests.
“It’s a very small difference that we don’t even care about it. It’s within 10 per cent (more than regular palm oil)”, Mr Tjioe said.
A bigger issue, he said, is a lack of awareness.
“There are many products in the restaurant that contain palm oil, like sauces. Many of them are produced in other countries like Hong Kong or China," he said.
"We have sent out a circular to them (manufacturers), asking them to declare whether their products contain sustainable palm oil. But the result is still quite lukewarm. Many of them say 'we use very little (palm oil)', or they don’t even know if their products contain sustainable or non-sustainable palm oil," he added.
WWF-Singapore CEO Elaine Tan echoed this, saying that "general awareness is pretty low in this part of the world" compared with Europe.
However, Ms Tan said the addition of the new restaurants was “testament that companies and businesses are ready, and they also want to be responsible to consumers demanding right now for sustainable palm oil”.
"I think it’s the beginning of a real ground swell," she said.
As for consumers’ buy-in, the businesses said the response has been encouraging, and people are willing to pay the premium. Mr Andrew Kwan, Group Managing Director of Common Wealth Capital - which owns brands like PastaMania, The Soup Spoon and Udders Ice Cream - likened the momentum to organic food.
"I’m hopeful and I’m quite confident that consumers will be discerning, and that they will pay just a little bit more if they know that companies that offer food are also getting products that are sustainably sourced," he said.
NOT ABOUT TURNING AWAY FROM PALM OIL COMPLETELY: MASAGOS
In 2015, raging forest fires in Indonesia caused by a combination of dry weather and slash-and-burn techniques to clear land sparked one of the worst haze crisis on record.
The haze caused the air quality in Singapore to turn hazardous, forcing the closure of schools and costing the economy an estimated S$700 million.
As a result, Singapore authorities in 2015 took action against companies believed to be behind the polluting fires, under the Transboundary Haze Pollution Act.
“We cannot resolve this issue without addressing the production of palm oil”, said Environment and Water Resources Minister Masagos Zulkifli at the announcement of SASPO’s new members on Monday (Feb 26).
But it is not about turning away from palm oil completely.
Out of the world's palm oil production, 85 per cent is produced in this region.
The palm oil industry not only contributes about up to 2.5 per cent to Indonesia’s gross national product (GNP), but also is the fourth-largest GNP contributor in Malaysia.
“The palm oil industry also supports the transition of many communities out of poverty, and significantly improves the livelihood of farmers”, Mr Masagos added.
He said that this is why Singapore supports the growth and success of a sustainable palm oil industry in the region, particularly as the demand for palm oil is expected to grow by 50 per cent by 2020.
The public has also sent signals to companies to use sustainable palm oil.
Most recently, a petition launched by two students to get food companies to make the switch garnered more than 8,000 signatures.
In 2017, a campaign led by World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF Singapore) saw people in Singapore sending 60,000 emails to local brands to show their support for responsibly-sourced palm oil.