Cheyenne Mountain Zoo Palm-Oil App Falls Short

This is an exciting time to be an advocate for palm-oil awareness. It would seem that every day new avenues emerge, connecting people with the vital information they need to make choices that benefit the planet. Phone applications are on the outskirts of this boom, the most successful among them being a palm-oil scanner created by Australia's Palm Oil Investigations. In the United States, zoos have taken command of this outlet as a means of educating visitors about orangutan welfare and the drivers of this animal's extinction. 

In that vein, Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, located in Colorado, created a mobile shopping guide. This guide operates as a database, wherein you can search for different brands, products, and RSPO members. Each listing is color coded: green and yellow (which garner an 'orangutan friendly' symbol) and orange, which denotes that a company needs tighter regulations. While well-known offenders–like Nissin Foods–do come with an orange badge, this system shows itself to be imperfect very quickly, nonetheless.

The Good

Very little 'black and white' exists within the palm-oil problem and this fact makes it increasingly difficult to give comprehensive information in a bite-sized manor. For their effort, Cheyenne Mountain Zoo does deserve praise. Mobile guides and scanner apps are deeply necessary for "today's shopper." The app's interface is successful; products are broken up into categories like Food & Drink, Snacks, Pet, Household, etc. The navigation has five components, comprising mostly of educational tools.


The system is also well-stocked with common items you might casually search for while at the grocery store.

The Not So Good

The color coded system, on which Cheyenne's app hinges, reads well on paper but has odd and ultimately disappointing yields. Each company has the ability to earn 100 points, via five categories primarily centered around RSPO membership, progress report submittal, use of physical CSPO, and more. For example, committing fully to deforestation-free production accounts for a possible 25 points.

Despite this system, PepsiCo still earns a yellow badge (meaning Good) with a heading banner that reads: This product is orangutan friendly! As you may already know, PepsiCo was recently slammed by RAN for their continual disregard for the environment. Their latest palm-oil policy still contains a loophole that allows for deforestation to still take place in Indonesia, at the hands of an Indonesian food company of which PepsiCo is the parent.

Unilever, which sources 95% of its palm oil from Malaysia & Indonesia, earns a green badge (meaning Excellent) with the same 'orangutan friendly' emblem at the top. While Unilever has many ongoing sustainability projects for their consumption, they continue to be the world's largest buyer of palm-oil. In a 2014 sustainability report, they re-established a goal for full traceability and certification by 2020 and verified that only 9% of their palm-oil was segregated. With 90.5% of their palm-oil covered only by greenwashing GreenPalm certificates, it's fair to say that Unilever has a long way to go in ethically covering their high-level of consumption. Despite all of this, the app still tells the user that 'All Unilever products are orangutan friendly choices with regards to sustainable palm-oil.'

Should You Use It?

Neither of these scenarios are meant to be 'gotcha' moments at the expense of the zoo. They are, however, powerful examples of how this program, and similar apps, fail to educate the user properly. Whether it be because 'stock' needs to be updated more frequently or that Cheyenne Mountain's guideline be overhauled completely, this app does need serious retooling before use.

Especially the "Palm Oil" section, which again oversimplifies the issue. For example, the fact sheet on "Why Not Just Boycott Palm-Oil?" asserts that Indonesia and Malaysia are impoverished countries that rely heavily on palm-oil for their economy. There is truth to this statement, of course, but it does not go on to acknowledge that palm-oil plantations don't ensure wealth distribution nor do they always hold the highest standard in labor practices. The average zoo attendee may read this and feel as though they are doing a service to these countries, buy green badge items, and never voice their concerns about labor, wages, and welfare with brands. 

This same section goes on to say that there will always be demand for oil and that this demand grows with our population, so we may as well lean on palm for its high yield. However, a statement like this is a bit too defeatist and does not take into account that our reliance on processed food is a colossal component of our global consumption. Instead of being concerned about producing the most ethical Pop Tart, perhaps we should usher people into an age where whole foods, not processed pastries, dominate the breakfast market. While boycott may not be a slogan to champion, advocating for lifestyle change and a whole food diet should be advertised when possible. 

I digress; there's no real expectation for Cheyenne Mountain Zoo's app to be everything for users. There is enormous potential in zoos creating mobile programs to educate the public after they have left the park. This idea should absolutely be explored and strengthened regarding its relation to palm-oil awareness. However, the zoo app does expose major flaws in mobile shopping guides and "quick education" tools. Perhaps an app that coaches the habits of their supporters may be more successful in promoting real consumer change. 

Cover gif by Dai Ruiz via GIPHY.