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Sustainable Palm Oil: Rainforest Savior or Fig Leaf?

The spoof advertisement could scarcely have been nastier for the chocolate firm Nestle. It showed a worker taking a break at the office and eating a Kit Kat bar that turns into the finger of a baby orangutan, with blood oozing everywhere. The online video, which appeared early this year, helped persuade Nestle to change its policy on the use of palm oil grown - so campaigners claim - on land that once nurtured forested orangutan habitat.

It also encouraged the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, a coalition of environmentalists and palm oil growers, traders and users, to launch its trademarked logo for certified sustainable palm oil to be put on food and cosmetics packaging beginning in early 2011. And it raised afresh the question of whether consumer pressure on big companies can deliver major environmental improvement.

Can we tame the corporate giants of consumerism? Or are we deluding ourselves that we can put the fright into the likes of Nestle, Wal-Mart and BP? And even if some green-minded Westerners can successfully demand that these multinational companies clean up their act, surely the rapacious new consumers across Asia will undermine our efforts?

The fate of palm oil in the marketplace is rapidly become a test case for green consumers. And despite some setbacks and plenty of skepticism, I think there are causes for optimism.