Around one in ten products on the supermarket shelf contain palm oil. But this monoculture crop is responsible for deforesting the Amazon and other lush areas of the Earth that are protecting our planet from global warming.
Derived from the fruit of the African oil palm tree Elaeis guineensis, palm oil is relatively cheap to produce, which is why it accounts for 35% of the world’s vegetable oil production.
Ubiquitous and versatile, it is used in around 50% of the packaged food products we consume every day, including snacks, ice cream, packaged sandwich bread, margarine, energy bars, chocolate, frozen food, instant noodles, pet food, biscuits, and most processed and fast foods. But it's also found in around 70% of beauty and personal care products like soap, toothpaste, shampoo, moisturisers, lipsticks, candles and cosmetics, and household cleaners.
Palm oil is everywhere. Unfortunately, it also comes at the expense of vast forests, loss of peatland, dangerous levels of carbon dioxide emissions, species decline, and exploitation and abuses of workers and indigenous peoples.
Deforestation and destruction of wildlife
Today, palm oil accounts for 6% of all cultivated land, but the increased demand for this non-sustainable monoculture crop is fuelling the destruction of some of the world’s most biodiverse forests in Indonesia, Malaysia and Papua New Guinea, as well as the Amazon. Existing forests are cleared and burned, resulting in enormous carbon emissions —around 10% of all global carbon emissions—to make way for palm oil plantations. Palm oil production mills also generate 2.5 metric tons of effluent for every metric ton of palm oil produced. Direct release of this effluent can cause freshwater pollution, which affects downstream biodiversity and people.
And demand for palm oil is increasing. Humans are consuming 50 million tonnes of palm oil each year, resulting in the clearing of rainforest the equivalent size of 300 football fields every hour to make room for palm oil production. With it comes the destruction of habitat for many species of animals that call the forests home.
Animals such as Bornean orangutans, tigers and rhinos are being driven to the brink of extinction. When you consider all of this, the inclusion of palm oil in cosmetics, and food, isn't vegan friendly—despite being a plant-derived ingredient—or sustainable. The destruction of habitat for orangutans in the last two decades alone has been staggering, with 80% of the habitat wiped out. This has resulted in around 1,000-5,000 orangutans killed every year because of palm oil development. Today, habitat loss caused by palm oil farming is believed to be the biggest threat to the survival of both the critically endangered Sumatran orangutan and the endangered Bornean orangutan.
In the last decade, the orangutan population has dropped by 50% while the land used for palm oil plantations has doubled. Indigenous peoples have also found themselves displaced by plantations encroaching onto their lands, forcing them to seek refuge and palm oil harvesting has also led to human rights abuses.
Sustainable Palm Oil?
Irresponsible and unsustainable palm oil has found its way into the products of some of the supply chains of the world’s biggest household name companies like Nestlé to Colgate-Palmolive and Hershey despite assurances from many companies that they are committed to sourcing sustainable palm oil (yet more greenwashing).
But, while the harvesting of palm oil is devastating to wildlife and our eco systems, it is also a highly productive crop, with a yield far greater than any other vegetable oils such as soybean, rapeseed, and sunflower which use far more land. Replacing palm oil with other vegetable oils could require up to four to 10 times more land to produce the same amount of oil.
So what can we do as consumers? There is room for significant progress from companies engaged with the palm oil industry. Palm oil can be produced sustainably, with no deforestation and no destruction of natural ecosystems, in a manner that benefits both people and nature. When done sustainably, palm oil is our best option for an edible vegetable oil, requiring less land, pesticides and fertilizers than other oil alternatives.
To that end, a Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was set up in 2004 with the backing of WWF in order to prevent the destruction of High Conservation Value forests and protect forest-dependent communities from exploitation by palm oil firms. Requirement for annual reporting from members makes it possible to see how much palm oil they are actually using (fruit oil, kernel oil and derivatives), and what forms of certification are used. This means that companies have got far less scope to greenwash.
There is much work to be done with certification, however. Being a member does not mean companies are certified, it means they have a timebound commitment to become more sustainable, and must report progress. But it's a step in the right direction. The WWF created a palm oil scorecard that examines actions companies are taking beyond their own supply chains to support a sustainable palm oil industry. Large companies can also score a 'best' rating if all palm oil and derivatives are certified by the RSPO, with at least 50% coming from segregated or identity preserved mechanisms, they list all their mills and producers, and publish an annual grievance list. And they should ensure none of their producers are on a list of suppliers that lack ‘No Deforestation, No Peat, No Exploitation’ policies.
NGO’s like WWF and the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, have online guides listing products made by companies that are members of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil so that consumers can makes smarter choices. You can also look for products with Palm Oil Free certification from Orangutan Alliance or the Palm Oil Free Certification Trademark POFCAP.
Look at the Ingredients
Next time you go to the store, look at the certification on a label. If there is none, or if the label says the product is palm oil-free, check the ingredients label closely. This can be a minefield as palm oil isn’t always labelled clearly.
There are over 200 names for palm oil and its derivatives, so it's easy to miss them when scanning the ingredients label. In many products palm oil is often listed as ‘vegetable oil’, ‘vegetable glycerin’. But it may also be labelled as:
Etyl palmitate Glyceryl
Glyceryl stearate Hydrogenated palm glycerides
Lauryl glucoside Octyl palmitate Palm fruit oil Palm kernel Palm kernel oil Palm stearine Palmate Palmitate Palmitic acid Palmitoyl oxostearamide Palmitoyl tetrapeptide-3 Palmityl alcohol Palmolein
Retinyl palmitate Sodium kernelate Sodium laureth sulfate Sodium lauryl lactylate Sodium lauryl sulfate Sodium palm kernelate Stearate Stearic acid Vegetable fat Vegetable oil
* This is by no means an exhaustive list.
If you want to eat less palm oil, eat less processed food. Most of the foods that contain palm oil are processed and fast food. Check out the Ethical Consumer's Palm Oil-Free list. Try to eat simple, whole foods that are closer to their source, and healthier. And for skincare products, there are many options without palm oil. Try some of the products below.
Change how and what you consume and demand more transparency in the industry.