Glenn Hurowitz sat down for his Thanksgiving meal discouraged. He’d spent 2013 flying halfway around the world to cultivate a fragile relationship with Kuok Khoon Hong, CEO of the world’s largest palm oil corporation, Wilmar. Kuok was the linchpin, Hurowitz believed — a single person who might turn the entire palm oil industry around. Wilmar buys palm oil from 80 percent of the world’s suppliers. If Kuok committed to buying only from farmers who promised not to cut down the rainforest, it would set off a chain reaction that might save hundreds of species from extinction and squelch one of the world’s biggest sources of carbon emissions. But after months of progress, the signals he’d been getting from Kuok were not encouraging.
Hurowitz emailed his co-workers at Forest Heroes, the nonprofit he’d founded, telling them to prepare for a protracted struggle. “I said, ‘Suit up, we’re going to war’,” Hurowitz told me. Then he got into bed, deflated. As he was settling in, his iPhone chimed a new text message. It was Scott Poynton, head of The Forest Trust, who had been working closely with Hurowitz and Kuok. Kuok was ready to make a commitment, the text said.
Hurowitz rushed to book a flight to Singapore. That Monday, he was on the airplane.
It takes 24 hours to fly from Washington, D.C., to Singapore. By the time Hurowitz got off the plane, he saw he had another email from Kuok. Perhaps the time was not right, the palm oil exec was saying now; he wasn’t going to make any commitments unless the other palm oil companies did the same.
Hurowitz knew that wasn’t going to happen. Negotiations had been proceeding for years and had consistently failed to stop the chainsaws. He fired back an email with a picture of protesters holding banners outside the Kellogg’s headquarters in Battle Creek, Mich. (Kellogg’s bought oil from Wilmar.)
“Every one of your customers’ headquarters is going to look like this,” Hurowitz remembers writing. “This is an opportunity to distinguish yourself.” Then he waited. There was no immediate response from Kuok. “That was a good sign, because usually if he was mad he’d fire something right back.” Two hours later, Kuok sent an email telling Hurowitz they would talk over dinner.
Within 48 hours, Wilmar had signed a sweeping commitment that went further than any other company in the industry. Wilmar not only promised to stop cutting down forests; it pledged to ensure that all the farmers it bought from did the same.
Many other companies had insisted such a pledge was impossible. Yet one year later, every other major palm oil trader had followed Wilmar’s lead.
This is a story about how change happens. It happens for big reasons: economic shifts, political winds, technological revolutions. But it also happens for small reasons: individual people making very personal choices.
In the last 10 years, palm oil has found its way into just about every processed food and cosmetics product you can imagine. Food makers found it was a good replacement for transfats, and they could use it as a non-GMO alternative to soybean oil. It’s also burned as fuel. The world’s hunger for palm oil has driven farmers to clear an area the size of Taiwan. All this cutting has pushed Sumatran tigers and orangutans to the edge of extinction, along with hundreds of less charismatic species. Sometimes human inhabitants of the forest have been exploited by corrupt plantation owners. A significant portion of the jungle covers bogs, where centuries worth of fallen leaves and branches have built up to form a sodden mat of peat. With the trees gone and the water drained, this peat dries out and frequently catches fire, releasing megatons of greenhouse gases. We’re turning these giant soggy carbon sinks into a parched landscape where smoke seeps out of the earth from deep underground fires.
Palm oil itself isn’t inherently evil: It can be grown in a sustainable fashion. The most responsible players in the industry have helped lift communities of farmers out of poverty. And the crop produces seven times as much oil per acre as soy — so, as demand for food grows, palm oil might actually help reduce the amount of land taken up by agriculture. But only if it’s grown where there aren’t old-growth forests and peat swamps.
At the end of 2013, Wilmar promised to stop buying from anyone who cleared forest, drained peat land, or exploited locals. It promised to do this in a transparent fashion, so that anyone can check up on it. And, so far, the company has gone above and beyond the expectations of activists.
It sometimes feels as if the wheels of environmental reform are spinning in the mud, so when real change happens, it’s remarkable. I’ve been hearing horror stories about the loss of rainforest since I was in grade school. Nothing ever seems to change. Companies and governments have floundered, or made piecemeal adjustments, or flatly resisted change. And then, all of a sudden, every major player begins to commit to transformative change, one after another. What the heck happened? In this story, something changed in those 48 hours between the time Kuok told Hurowitz he would not make the commitment, and the moment that he did. But to understand what unfolded in those 48 hours, we need to back up about six months…