A view of the skyline of the central business district shrouded by haze in Singapore in September 2015. (Reuters/Edgar Su)
A new online shopping tool gives Singaporeans the option of buying products made using ethical palm oil, a non-profit behind the scheme said on Thursday, as it looks to tackle the region's haze fires.
Launched by the Singapore-based People's Movement to Stop Haze (PM Haze) and advertising agency Havas Group, EcoCart is a Google Chrome 'plugin' that allows online shoppers to identify items that use sustainability produced palm oil.
As well as flagging items that do not contain sustainable palm oil, the tool suggests similar products that do.
"There are millions of products out there and it's virtually impossible to log every single on of them," said Benjamin Tay, executive director of PM Haze, an advocacy group that looks to find solutions to the region's annual haze problem.
"But the important thing is this provides a potential avenue for people to realize what products are sustainably produced or responsibly sourced," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The first of its kind to be built and launched, according to PM Haze, the tool has a target of getting Singaporeans to make 500,000 'switches' by the end of 2019 and hopes to expand it to identify other ethically produced goods if successful.
Globally, consumers and retailers are demanding more information about what they procure, buy and eat, to ensure its production and transportation does not damage the environment, or use illegal and unethical business practices.
In response, large consumer goods companies, restaurants and other businesses are looking at ways to attract more customers by offering sustainable products that are guaranteed as free of deforestation or slave labour, for example.
Palm oil is the world's most widely used edible oil, found in everything from margarine to biscuits, and soap to soups.
But the industry has come under scrutiny in recent years from green activists and consumers, who have blamed it for forest loss and fires, as well as exploitation of workers.
Indonesia is the world's biggest producer of palm oil and every year smoke from fires used to clear land for agricultural expansion clouds the skies over large parts of Southeast Asia, raising concerns about public health.
Peat fires in 2015 were estimated to have caused up to 100,000 premature deaths, according to the World Resources Institute, and cost the Indonesian economy $16.5 billion.
"It's a huge health risk to Singaporeans and our neighbors," said Tay.
EcoCart uses publicly available data from the Kuala Lumpur-based Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), a global watchdog with more than 4,000 members including producers, traders, buyers and green groups.
EcoCart currently works with major e-commerce websites Redmart.com, ColdStorage.com.sg and Fairprice.com.sg but hopes to expand with the help of other retailers.
Tay said it was hoped the online tool would eventually be used to identify other products that are ethically produced - like cocoa, coffee and paper - and go beyond Singapore.
"I see huge potential in using other kinds of products ... The [haze] problem is transboundary so we can't just offer this within Singapore," he said.