The trigger for the controversy is by now well known - an online video posted by Greenpeace featuring an office worker accidentally biting into an orangutan finger instead of a Kit Kat. The video was designed to draw attention to the NGO’s battle with Nestlé over its relationship with Indonesian company Sinar Mas Group, which has been accused of illegal deforestation of rainforests - the habitat of orangutans.
The food giant flexed its muscles and managed to get the Greenpeace video removed from YouTube, a step that angered thousands of consumers, prompting them to take on the company through Twitter and on its Facebook fan page. The inept handling of social media channels by a Nestlé representative attracted a barrage of negative comments. Nestlé has since admitted it has learnt a big lesson from its social media ineptness and accepted that that it is still “learning about how best to use social media”.
But while the incident has inflamed online passions in the West, it does not seem to have affected the average Asian consumer too much. The two largest producers of palm oil globally - Indonesia and Malaysia - have been relatively unaffected by the controversy, with no serious protests covered in the local media or in the social media space. And although Nestlé has been forced to bow to international online pressure, the incident has so far had little impact on palm oil production or indeed government legislation in these two countries.
This could be due to the overall immaturity of consumer activism in Indonesia, as well as a lack of high-profile environmental NGOs in the country. At the same time, it could be argued that the average Indonesian consumer is somewhat apathetic to the palm oil issue. In addition, as Jonathan Sanchez, regional director for consumer marketing at Edelman, wrote in a recent blog, palm oil plays an important part in the Indonesian economy, building communities and providing jobs.
The controversy is, of course, nothing new for Sinar Mas, Indonesia’s largest producer of palm oil. In December 2009, Unilever, the world’s biggest consumer of palm oil, cancelled a 20 million pound contract after it learnt about a dossier of evidence to be published by Greenpeace. Sinar Mas Group has since appointed two bodies to assess allegations from Greenpeace that it has destroyed rainforests.
Nestlé has since claimed that the palm oil bought from Sinar Mas was only used for production in Indonesia and that it has now stopped buying oil from Sinar Mas, a claim disputed by Greenpeace, which says that Nestlé continues to source the oil indirectly from Sinar Mas through Cargill, an accusation the pressure group has in recent months also thrown at the likes of McDonald’s, Kraft and Procter & Gamble.
How this controversy plays out in the long term remains to be seen. But the muted reaction from within Indonesia also suggests that the widespread notion of social media as a hotbed for online activism cannot be taken for granted, at the local level at least.
Shubho Sarkar, CEO, Bates 141 Indonesia:
“Indonesia, as of now, seems quite untouched by the Greenpeace parody of the Kit Kat ad, or the brouhaha it has caused on social networks. Surprising, for a country that is one of the fastest growing in social networking memberships, internet penetration and use of mobile internet.
Understandable, because while there is no lack of concern for either the orangutan or rainforests here, this is a classic case of plenty being the mother of apathy. In an era of increasing public decibel levels thanks to technology, too much action on the PR front is just as bad as too little. Public memory is short where social networking is concerned, and it revolves around the ‘flavour of the moment’.”
David Lian, social media strategist, Asean, Text 100 Malaysia:
“In Asean, reactions were muted. Most monitored reactions seemed to be limited to tweeting / retweeting coverage of the issue with posts from social media commentators. Social media users in Asean are more interested in using the media for sharing their personal lives and experiences, and less inclined to discuss issues that don’t impact them in a practical sense.
From a wider perspective, this reaffirms the importance of local social media programmes that outreach local communities versus targeting ‘the-internet-at-large.’ Importantly, local programmes also allow brands to keep and deal with issues locally.”
Ong Hock Chuan, technical advisor, Maverick Indonesia:
“The Nestlé controversy has seen little impact in Indonesia. Some newspaper coverage, a local NGO protesting but little else. Why? One way of looking at it is that the level of environmental consciousness, and the impetus to act, is lower here than in the West.
Another view is that Greenpeace and its affiliates have yet to reach the level of sophistication and reach into the local community, online and offline, as they have in the West.
Perhaps this is because both NGO and multinational see their main arena for hearts and minds as in the West rather than in Asia.
The day will come when that changes though.”
Joko Arif, forest campaigner, Greenpeace Southeast Asia:
“On the local level, Greenpeace has been lobbying government and the palm oil industry to move forward and enforce the law, because what Sinar Mas has done is giving Indonesian palm oil a bad reputation.
Further more, we are calling on Government and industry to implement an immediate moratorium on forest clearance, and start the protection of all peat lands.
We also understand that local consumers should play a big role in this campaign, but as the consumer movement is still developing in Indonesia, we are focus on creating more awareness for the 30,000 supporters and activists we have in Indonesia to take actions and spread the campaign”
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This article was originally published in the 22 April 2010 issue of Media.