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Palm Oil Traceability: How Johnson & Johnson is Making Progress

Chances are you played a game known as telephone as a kid, where one child whispers a message to a friend, who then relays it to the next person in the chain, and so on until the last child in the group has to share the message out loud.

If you’ve participated in this game, you probably know that the more children who play, the harder it gets for the last child in the chain to successfully relay the original message.
I share this story because it has a lot in common with our experiences at Johnson & Johnson tracing the journey that some ingredients used in our personal care products take—but on a worldwide scale.


Making Personal Care Product Ingredients

Many personal care products contain ingredients such as emollients and emulsifiers that are made from palm oil and palm kernel oil. These ingredients are called “palm oil derivatives” and often go through multiple refining steps, with multiple suppliers, to meet the stringent requirements Johnson & Johnson expects. In the case of palm kernel oil, there is an additional step to crush the kernels, involving yet another supplier. And since palm oil production may be associated with unacceptable deforestation practices, despite the number of suppliers that might be involved, we must have transparency into these supply chains.


Gaining Supply Chain Transparency But unlike a straightforward game of telephone, where all of the players agree to pass along the message, some suppliers view their information as a source of competitive advantage and may be reluctant to share it up and down the chain. To overcome this challenge, in 2014, Johnson & Johnson published our Responsible Palm Oil Sourcing Criteria and engaged the help of The Forest Trust (TFT), an NGO that works with global companies committed to transparent supply chains.

While getting information to flow up and down these supply chains has proven to take more time than we expected, since partnering with TFT, the flow of information has improved—and we’ve already taken action to eliminate one supplier from our supply chains who did not comply with our criteria.


Making a Difference Beyond our Supply Chains We also realize the need for more immediate improvement on the ground to prevent further deforestation. One step we’ve taken is to partner with NGOs such as IDH, Wild Asia, Solidaridad and most recently TFT to help improve the sustainability practices of small farmers who own less than 50 hectares of land.

We also participate in industry coalitions, like the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil and the Consumer Goods Forum, to help transform the palm oil industry – improving the amount of sustainable palm oil available for use in supply chains like ours.

While I’ve used the analogy of a game to explain the complexities of palm oil supply chains, the devastation of rainforests is clearly no game. As a healthcare company that understands the link between human health and environmental health, we are committed to being part of the solution.

Our health—and the health of future generations—depends on it.

Update: Since this article was published, Johnson & Johnson has decided to move business away from a second supplier for not conforming to our Responsible Palm Oil Sourcing Criteria. We will continue to monitor our palm oil derivatives supply chains and take appropriate action if nonconformances with our sourcing criteria are identified.

Paulette Frank currently serves in the role of Vice President of Environment, Health, Safety & Sustainability for J&J Enterprise. In her role, she provides thought leadership and strategic direction to advance the organization’s sustainability mission. She also represents the company in external forums and in education and awareness building efforts, providing a voice for the company’s values and commitment to help create a healthy future for people, our communities, and the planet. Paulette has been working in the fields of environmental stewardship, employee health & safety and sustainability for over 22 years. In 1997, she joined the Johnson & Johnson Family of Companies where she has served in a number of roles within Environment, Health & Safety, Sustainability and Operations across the enterprise.

Paulette earned her Bachelor of Science degree in Biology from Duke University and her Master of Environmental Studies degree from Yale University’s School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. She serves as an advisory council member for the Center for Business and Environment at Yale. She is on the Board of Directors for Net Impact and a member of the Leadership Council for the Corporate Eco-Forum.