(Adds Greenpeace reaction)
AMSTERDAM May 1 Consumer goods company Unilever (UNc.AS) (ULVR.L) will start buying palm oil from certified sustainable sources this year and aims to have all its palm oil certified by 2015, the company said on Thursday.
The announcement follows protests across Europe last month, when Greenpeace activists, some dressed up as orang-utans, demonstrated against the source of Unilever's palm oil, an ingredient in foods and soaps.
Greenpeace says the peatland forests of Indonesia, one of the last remaining habitats of the orang-utan, are being damaged to provide palm oil.
Unilever owns dozens of household name brands in foods, beverages and cleaning products and buys around 1.3 million tonnes of palm oil a year, making it, according to Greenpeace, the world's single largest buyer of the product.
Unilever said it started working on sustainable palm oil 10 years ago by developing its own guidelines with growers and suppliers, leading to an industry consensus on criteria for sustainable cultivation.
"Now we need to take the next step. Suppliers need to move to meet the criteria, by getting certified both the palm oil from their own plantations and the palm oil they buy from elsewhere," Unilever Chief Executive Patrick Cescau said in a statement.
"We also intend to support the call for an immediate moratorium on any further deforestation in Indonesia for palm oil."
Greenpeace welcomed Unilever's call for a moratorium on rainforest destruction in Indonesia.
"Other companies like Nestle and Procter & Gamble now need to join forces with Unilever to exert real pressure on the ground," Greenpeace forest campaigner Tim Birch said in a statement.
Cescau was speaking at an event in London organised by Britain's Prince Charles to try to motivate companies to cut their greenhouse gas emissions. The heir to the throne and "green" crusader welcomed Unilever's announcement:
"This is really a ground-breaking move which could make a whole difference to the future of the rainforests," he said.
Unilever said it would use certified palm oil sources as these became available in the second half of 2008 and planned to use only fully traceable palm oil in Europe by 2012.
A Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, which involves companies involved in the palm oil industry, is working to build consensus on criteria for sustainable palm cultivation.
(Reporting by Niclas Mika in Amsterdam and Gerard Wynn in London; editing by Chris Johnson)