Greenpeace pressures Unilever, gains moratorium on destructive palm oil production in Indonesia, 2008

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Time Period:  
Time period notes: 
Greenpeace campaigners met their goals by May 9th, but continued to work with Unilever for another six months.
April 21
May 9
Location and Goals
United Kingdom
Location City/State/Province: 
London, England
Location Description: 
Unilever headquarters in London, England. Protests took place in Liverpool, the Netherlands, and Rome as well.
Have Unilever agree to:

1. Support an immediate moratorium on the destruction of rainforest and peatland areas in Indonesia to grow palm oil;

2. Stop trading with palm oil suppliers who are involved in this destruction;

3. Pressure the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil to also support a moratorium.


Palm oil is a versatile and inexpensive oil used in many products, from ice cream and cookies to soap and lipstick. Expansion of palm oil plantations is the leading cause of rainforest destruction in Indonesia. Unilever is the world’s largest consumer of palm oil, which they use in many of their products such as Dove soap, Breyers Ice Cream, and Flora Margarine.

In order to grow palm oil, many producers in Indonesia clear and burn rainforest or drain protected peatlands. The process of burning rainforest and draining peatlands reduces habitat and food sources for many animals that live there. Endangered orangutans, for example, often come into conflict with palm oil producers when they look for food in palm oil plantations and producers kill them to protect their crops. Clearcutting and burning rainforests and draining peatlands releases huge amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

There has been huge public pressure to produce more sustainable and less destructive palm oil. In 2002 retailers, manufacturers and suppliers of palm oil formed the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, or RSPO. RSPO’s aim is to create standards for the production of sustainable palm oil. In 2008 certified oil was still not available, prompting Greenpeace to call RSPO a “greenwashing operation.” Even when the certified oil is available, there are no regulations in place to prevent more sustainable, certified oil from being mixed with oil that was produced on land that had just been cleared.

Greenpeace started to target Unilever in 2008 because they are the biggest consumer of palm oil and their representatives head RSPO. Greenpeace wanted Unilever to:

  1. 1. Support an immediate moratorium on the destruction of rainforest and peatland areas in Indonesia to grow palm oil;
  2. 2. Stop trading with palm oil suppliers who are involved in this destruction;
  3. 3. Pressure the RSPO to also support a moratorium.

On 21 April 2008, Greenpeace started asking volunteers to send emails to Unilever’s chief executive, Patrick Cescau; published a report tying Unilever to forest destruction in Indonesia; released a video connecting Dove (a subsidiary of Unilever) to palm oil-related forest destruction; and held actions at four Unilever locations across Europe.

Within two weeks of Greenpeace asking concerned people to email Cescau about Unilever’s involvement in destructive palm oil production, tens of thousands of people had sent emails to the chief executive.

On 21 April 2008 Greenpeace also released a report that traced palm oil production practices for Unilever and connected Unilever to the destruction of rainforests in Indonesia. Greenpeace researched every company Unilever had said supplied them with palm oil and researched the suppliers’ production techniques. Greenpeace mapped forest clearcutting and fire hotspots that indicated that producers had cleared the area using fires. They also mapped palm oil production farms onto a map of known peatlands, indicating which peatlands had been drained for palm oil production.

On 21 April 2008 Greenpeace released a video called “Dove Onslaught(er)” that was modeled after Dove’s “Campaign for Real Beauty.” Instead of showing women of different body types enjoying Dove products, it showed the clearcutting that palm oil producers use to make products such as Dove soap.

During actions on 21 April 2008, at Unilever’s London headquarters, four activists dressed as orangutans perched on top of a balcony and held banners while volunteers below parked a giant billboard mounted on a truck next to a Dove billboard and activists played jungle noises loudly. In Liverpool at the same time, 60 activists put a banner up over the entrance to a Unilever factory. In Rotterdam, at Unilever’s headquarters in the Netherlands, six activists climbed the building in orangutan suits and unfurled a banner that read “Unilever, Don’t Destroy the Forests.” In Rome, ten activists stopped Unilever employees from entering the Italian Unilever headquarters and handed out flyers explaining how Unilever is connected to forest destruction in Indonesia.

About a week later, on 1 May 2008, in a public speech at a May Day Climate Summit in England, Cescau announced that he and Unilever would support the call for a moratorium on rainforest destruction through the production of palm oil and that all of Unilever’s palm oil would be sustainably sourced by 2015. Greenpeace responded by saying that promises of sustainable palm oil meant nothing unless they actually stopped buying palm oil that was grown by clearcutting Indonesian forests.

On 9 May 2008 Unilever invited Greenpeace campaigners to meet with them at Unilever headquarters. In this meeting, Unilever agreed to: support an immediate moratorium on deforestation for palm oil in Southeast Asia; lobby major players and other corporations within and outside of the Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO); put pressure on their palm oil producers to support the moratorium; and agreed to lobby the Indonesian government to support the immediate moratorium. Unilever also agreed to work with Greenpeace campaigners for six months, from May 2008 to November 2008 to build the coalition of companies that support the moratorium.

Research Notes
“Dove Onslaught(er).” Video. Greenpeace. 21 April 2008.

“How Unilever Palm Oil Suppliers are Burning up Borneo.” Greenpeace. 21 April 2008.

“Orang-utan protests and customer outcry prompt Unilever forest destruction climb down.” Greenpeace. 1 May 2008.

“Public pressure for Indonesia’s forests works, Ask Unilever.” Greenpeace. 14 January 2009.

“Unilever to source 100% sustainable palm oil by 2014.” Responding to Climate Change. 12 November 2013.

“Unilever’s ‘Monkey Business’: Greenpeace swings into action.” Greenpeace. 21 April 2008.

“Working with Suppliers.” Unilever. 2014.

Aidenvironment. “Unilever Verification Report.” June 2009.

Hamid, Areeba. “Who’s going to take the Tiger Challenge next?” Greenpeace. 18 November 2013.

Jamie. “Orang-utans swing into action to stop Dove destroying rainforests for palm oil.” Greenpeace. 21 April 2008.

Jossc. “Dove story: how you’re helping to change Unilever’s mind on palm oil.” Greenpeace. 1 May 2008.

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Ryan Leitner 21/03/2014