Ben Dowdle

Fireworks enthusiast, environmentalist, campaigner.

Ben Dowdle blows stuff up for a job. He’s a pyrotechnician you see. But that’s not all. You know how palm oil is used in a lot of food products you eat right? No? That’s probably because food products in Australasia don’t have to label it on their food ingredients list. Ben thought that this was wrong, so he started a campaign called Unmask Palm Oil. The goal is to make this sort of labelling a legal must. He spoke to us briefly about what he does and how you can do it too.  


What is the driving force for the Unmask Palm Oil Project?

Four years ago I was a part of the Pakuranga College Environmental Council. We learnt about a common ingredient in food called palm oil. This ingredient can cause large scale deforestation, which leads to carbon emissions, social conflicts and wildlife loss in South East Asia. We also discovered that across New Zealand and Australia, palm oil doesn’t have to be labelled on the ingredients lists. This means that consumers who are looking to buy Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO) don’t know if the product contains palm oil, let alone whether that palm oil has been produced responsibly or not.

In a rather naïve moment of inspiration, I decided that compulsory labelling of palm oil should be easy enough to sort out… maybe a couple of weeks. But we very quickly realised that food labelling legislation is a complex area of policy that is very hard to shift.

Four years on and we have moved well beyond the naivety of our teenage years. Now our campaign works right across Australasia at the highest levels of business, government, zoos and lobby groups. We have managed to keep labelling on the political agenda. Ministers from Australia and New Zealand will vote next year on whether mandatory labelling will move to the final stage of policy development. It is a long and painful political process but we are inching towards our goal.


What vision do you have for the next generation of Kiwis?

I want young people to understand leadership. This ridiculous idea is sold to us that leaders just walk out of the womb. In reality leadership is hard, involving long hours of work and a constant feeling of being out of your depth. People will keep saying no to you.

When I started Unmask Palm Oil, my skill set was a fear of public speaking, no understanding of politics and knowledge based on a google search. If you have vision and resilience then you are good to go. The skill set will grow with you.


If you could travel back in time to give yourself some advice, what time of your life would you go?

I feel that my failures have led on to successes. To try and change those would put me in a worse place. My enthusiasm for taking up opportunities (even the random ones), have led me in some weird and wonderful directions. Just last year my uncle invited me on an explosives course and I became fully qualified to use agricultural explosives. I thought that was the most pointless qualification ever until it led on to a job as a pyrotechnician doing fireworks displays off the Auckland Sky Tower.


What has been a generous act that you have experienced that has really knocked your socks off?

If I were to write a list of people and organisations that Unmask Palm Oil wouldn’t have happened without, it’d run for pages. There was always nine no’s before a yes. But people's willingness to put resources and time into supporting me and the campaign has been so astounding.


Three inspirational people join you for dinner. Who are they and why them?

Sir Peter Blake – to me he is the purest form of the New Zealand leadership style. Peter had an incredible capacity to build teams, fight for the greater good and bring out the best in people.

Dr Hawa Abdi – She is a Somali doctor and lawyer who chose to stay and help despite having the means to escape the civil war. She started a health clinic and camp that gives shelter, as well as medical care to ninety thousand Somalians affected by the ongoing war.

Mum – because she will read this and be stoked that she got a mention.

Join me, Inspiring Stories and One Percent Collective in the generosity movement in New Zealand!