Case | HBS Case Collection | December 2010 (Revised March 2013)

Asian Agri and the Future of Palm Oil

by David E. Bell and Natalie Kindred

Abstract

For Asian Agri and other Indonesian palm oil producers, the future promised rising demand from fast-growing Asian populations, but also intensifying criticism from environmental groups. With the highest yield and lowest production cost of any edible oil, palm oil constituted an abundant, inexpensive source of food for Asian and, to a lesser extent, international markets. Its production had soared from 1970 to 2010, sparking concern from environmentalists over the conversion of high-value conservation land in Malaysia and Indonesia (where nearly 90% of palm oil was produced) into palm oil plantations. Critics had intensified their campaigns in recent years, urging—at times successfully—packaged food makers and investors to boycott palm oil suppliers accused of environmental mismanagement. While noting that some accusations were unjustified, palm oil producers argued the industry was making strides towards greater sustainability and cited the unique advantages of palm oil: it was free of unhealthy trans fats, for example, and required less land to produce more oil than any known substitute. Asian Agri, an established Indonesian palm oil grower and exporter, had thus far avoided public scrutiny. The company was a key source of employment in many rural communities, had extensive experience negotiating the complex Indonesian regulatory environment, and was moving to certify its operations according to industry-set sustainability guidelines. In 2010, Asian Agri appeared well positioned to capitalize on the growing palm oil market, but the broad-strokes vilification of the palm oil industry was a source of serious concern. In the face of great uncertainty, the management team needed to devise a strategy for the future.

Keywords: Plant-Based Agribusiness; Social Marketing; Corporate Social Responsibility and Impact; Business Strategy; Supply Chain Management; Natural Environment; Marketing Strategy; Environmental Sustainability; Agriculture and Agribusiness Industry; Indonesia; Malaysia;

Citation:

Bell, David E., and Natalie Kindred. "Asian Agri and the Future of Palm Oil." Harvard Business School Case 511-015, December 2010. (Revised March 2013.)