Mr G and I have tried to avoid buying products that contain palm oil for some time now but haven’t found it easy. Even though we use very few packaged items, we’ve still managed to find it in the chocolate spread, mayonnaise, shampoo, soap and toothpaste. We’ve switched to different products if we’re unsure whether companies are sourcing 100% sustainable palm oil and we’ve signed every petition we can, demanding that our favourite brands make the commitment to switch too. The dangers to the planet of our favourite brands using palm oil, as well as to the wildlife and indigenous people who live in the area its grown in, have been highlighted for years but too many of us still haven’t heard or understand why we should be bothered about this simple vegetable oil.
The following information has taken days to amass (the sources have been linked throughout the text) and initially it was only intended for Mr G and me to have a better understanding of the products we’re putting in our shopping trolley. However, given that I’ve found this information, it makes sense to share it and I hope give you a better understanding of what all the fuss is about.
What is Palm Oil?
Palm Oil is a vegetable oil that’s estimated to be in over 50% of products for sale in supermarkets. It’s in the ingredients list of a vast amount of food as well as cleaning products, candles, health, beauty and cosmetics. More recently, it’s being added to biofuels – the ‘green’ alternative to petrol or gas. Palm oil is derived from the fruit of the Oil Palm, (Elaeis guineensis jacq.) a tree that grows in the humid tropics of West Africa, Malaysia and Indonesia, home to some of the rainforests. It’s a tree that local people in those areas are being encouraged to plant as the demand for palm oil from richer countries increases.
What’s the Problem with Palm Oil?
Developing countries are making money from a resource they can easily grow, produce and sell and why shouldn’t they? If a country has the perfect climate for a farmed product that the rest of the world wants, why wouldn’t they grow it?
Unfortunately, the problem lies in the area oil palm trees thrive in – the South Asian and African tropics where the ancient forests grow.
To make way for the massive palm oil plantations, the forests are being cleared and burnt, wild animals are being displaced and killed, as well as undocumented plants endangered. As the trees are removed and land cleared, greenhouse gases are being released, air pollution fills the cities and indigenous people are being displaced, often with human rights abuses being committed upon them.
The World Wildlife Fund claims that
“Global production of palm oil has doubled over the last decade. By 2000, palm oil was the most produced and traded vegetable oil, accounting for 40% of all vegetable oils traded internationally. By 2006, the percentage had risen to 65%. Worldwide demand for palm oil is expected to double again by 2020.”
With so much global demand for palm oil, governments, growers and workers living in the tropics, are encouraged to create larger plantations, selling the oil to richer nations. Currently 90% of palm oil production originates in Malaysia and Indonesia, countries that are home to 25% of the world’s rainforests. According to the team at Palm Oil Investigations:
“Virgin rainforests are being destroyed at an equivalent rate of over 300 football fields per HOUR in South East Asia to make way for new plantations.”
The tropical rainforests are said to be the lungs of our planet, providing the earth with a large part of its oxygen supply and helping to break down carbon dioxide. As the forests are cleared for palm oil plantations, greenhouse gases are released into the atmosphere from the carbon rich soils that the ancient trees and vegetation once grew in. As the rainforests get smaller, global weather patterns are changing as the planet warms.
Loss of Habitat, Extinction of Species
When the tropical forests are cleared, so too are the homes of the estimated 10 million species of plants, animals and insects that live within them, some seen as potential sources of cures for many diseases, but are now endangered. From orangutans to elephants, rhinos and tigers and not to mention the hundreds of thousands of smaller creatures and plants; their plight is desperate as biodiversity is reduced. Due to deforestation, at least 236 plant species and 51 animal species are facing extinction in Kalimantan alone.
What About Sustainable Palm Oil? Doesn’t That Make Everything Okay?
Herein lies the confusion, and I mean real confusion for us Joe Public, which is something I’m sure the big corporations are banking on as they source their cheaper, unsustainable palm oil ingredients, keeping their profits high.
What is Sustainable Palm Oil?
According to Palm Oil Investigations (POI), the (only) organisation who are responsible for encouraging its members to commit to sourcing Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO), is one called the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), On joining, the RSPO ask members to ‘make a commitment’ that they will be using 100% Certified Sustainable Palm Oil by the end of 2015 or later.
Certified Sustainable Palm Oil is a supply chain and to comply to the environmental and social criteria, plantations and producers of palm oil must act in accordance to it. The criteria as stated by the RSPO includes:
- No primary forests or areas which contain significant concentrations of biodiversity (e.g. endangered species) or fragile ecosystems can be cleared.
- No areas which are fundamental to meeting basic or traditional cultural needs of local communities (high conservation value areas), can be cleared.
- They must significantly reduce the use of pesticides and fires
- Workers must be treated fairly and in accordance with local and international labour rights standards
- New plantation owners need to inform and consult with local communities before they develop on their land.
The RSPO categorically state that “only by being RSPO-certified by an independent auditor approved by the RSPO can producers claim that they produce, use and/or sell sustainable palm oil.”
That’s great we might say, if a company has signed up to the RSPO they must be sourcing certified sustainable palm oil. Unfortunately not. They’ve only committed to sourcing it, they might not actually be doing it. According to POI, despite good intentions, the RSPO is “failing to enforce its own minimal principles and criteria”. As we know, if a guideline or rule isn’t enforced, it is human nature to take advantage, especially when there’s big business and mega $ involved.
To put this into context, of the 90 or so members who have signed up to the RSPO, a group that make up just 14% of the palm oil market, only four or five can be traced back to a 100% sustainable plantation.
How Do We Know If The Products We’re Using Come From Sustainable Palm Oil Plantations?
In short, we don’t. Since 13th December 2014 a new European labelling rule came into force stating that labels have to carry “specific information on the vegetable origin of refined oils and fats” which is great in that we’ll be able to see whether the oil used is palm oil, but it wont tell us whether it’s been sourced from sustainable plantations. For that we’ll have to check the websites of every product, sometimes having to decipher misleading information. Thankfully POI carry a page that can help us decipher that spin that corporations try to sell us, helping us to “read behind the lines of Company Palm Oil statements”.
Consumers Can Make a difference
Greenpeace have a list of companies ranked in terms of the effort they’re making to commit to the switch that you can find here. They range from Proctor & Gamble, L’Oréil and Néstle on the more progressive end of the scale, to Pepsi, Liby and Nice on the other.
Due to the intense consumer pressure and lobbying, Greenpeace announced last year that Proctor and Gamble (Head and Shoulders, Gillette, Pampers) have finally made the commitment to switch to sustainable palm oil by 2020.
However, as Greenpeace point out :
“The few remaining Sumatran tigers in the world do not have another six years to wait as irresponsible companies drag their feet.”
With the guarded success of Proctor and Gamble, the attention of Greenpeace has now turned towards PepsiCo (Pepsi, Doritos, Walkers, 7Up, Quaker, Tropicana) as well as other multinationals.
With less than 400 wild Sumatran tigers left in the world thanks to the mass deforestation, Greenpeace are urging us to sign a petition which you can find here, asking for the protection of these remaining wild creatures.
Should We Boycott Palm Oil?
There doesn’t appear to be a straightforward answer to this question.
The RSPO point out in a sponsored Guardian interview, that palm oil isn’t going to go away. It’s a valuable resource that grows in countries where hard cash matters. They believe that countries should be:
“working to make palm oil production more sustainable and efficient without the need for further deforestation, citing progress in Malaysia, where producers hope a strain of the plant called elite palm will allow the country to increase production without cutting down any more forest cover.”
Palm Oil Investigates
POI are in agreement that boycotting isn’t the answer either and they explain in detail the reasons why here. Again, they mention that Palm Oil isn’t going to disappear, that companies involved with it won’t go out of business, they’ll just go elsewhere, selling the cheaper, unsustainable oil to bigger markets in Asia, India and Japan.
Instead, POI hopes that we, the consumers, will demand that our favourite brands source Certified Sustainable Palm Oil, putting pressure on the buyers to buy it and the production companies to switch to it.
Rainforest Foundation (UK)
The Ethical Consumer and Rainforest Foundation have teamed up to compile a Palm Oil Guide that can be downloaded as a PDF to make consumers aware of some of the day-to-day products that contain palm oil. One of their aims is to “increase transparency and raise awareness of the potential negative environmental and social impacts related to the expansion of palm oil”, primarily in the Congo.
The Rainforest Alliance
The Rainforest Alliance support the (RSPO) and have created a “rigorous, complementary certification system for oil palm, which is based on the Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN) standard. Farms that meet the exacting criteria of the SAN standard for palm oil can earn the Rainforest Alliance certificate.”
The Sustainable Farm Certification International website has a list of oil palm farms that have achieved Rainforest Alliance certification which is well worth a look. You can also keep an eye out for the Rainforest Alliance symbol – a small green frog – and check out their website here for a list of certified produce in your area.
The Sum of Us
A global movement of consumers, investors, and workers all around the world, The Sum of Us recently published a spoof YouTube clip, attracting the wrath of PepsiCo, the parent company of Doritos, who buy 427,500 tonnes of palm oil every year. It’s an amusing but powerful clip that asks viewers to sign a petition telling Doritos and PepsiCo to adopt a responsible palm oil policy. You can sign the petition here, or wait for the link at the end of the video.
I’m sure I’ve only tipped the surface of the many organisations who are doing their best to halt this problem, but their success will be in numbers. The more of us who care, who demand palm oil from sustainable plantations, who are aware of what’s going on, the more likely they’ll be to see changes.
What Can We, The Consumers Do?
Be informed. Check the labels of the products you buy and see if they contain palm oil. Look for the Rainforest Alliance symbol, ask questions. In the Greenside Up household we’ve chosen to avoid the products that don’t contain CSPO until we can find out more, upsetting our kids in the process as some of their favourite products aren’t replaced in the cupboards. We’ve explained why we’re doing so in the hope they’ll develop an environmental conscience of their own. Whether we succeed or not we can only wait and see.
Alternative Names for Palm Oil
Hopefully the recent European Ruling on food labeling will mean we won’t have to recognise the 200 alternative names for palm oil. However, if you’re reading this from a non European country, or are interested in finding out what some of the alternative names are, the POI have a printable wallet sized leaflet listing them all that you can download here.
Help to Spread the Palm Oil Word
Tell your friends, neighbours, colleagues about palm oil and the companies that are more concerned about their profits than over their moral and social responsibilities.
Sign up for the newsletters, Facebook and Twitter streams of the organisations mentioned above and keep informed and sign every petition you can that calls for the halt of deforestation and more sustainable methods of producing palm oil.
Write emails to your favourite brands, asking if they are using 100% Certified Sustainable Palm Oil and if not, why not. Let them know that you want them to source their ingredients responsibility.
If you’ve found this article understandable and helpful, share it among your networks and help to spread the word.
The main thing is, do something.
The forests and wildlife don’t have a voice.
Thank you for writing this Dee and for raising awareness. I really think all first world countries should be enforcing the protection of the rain forests and compensating those countries for doing so. The rush for profits and to feed our increasing population – and to keep food cheap, is really decimating these rain forests at a ridiculous rate.
Interesting to see Nestle are being more progressive now. I tend to not buy their products since I read a book about how they influenced bottle feeding in very poor countries. Going to sign petition now
I was surprised by Nestle too though despite everything, and days of research, it’s still really difficult to figure out what’s really going on. Take Nutella for instance. Apparently in France they switched to sustainable oil after being threatened with a 300% tax, though in the rest of the world they haven’t yet. When you check the Ferrero website, Nutella’s parent who are listed as a progressive company by Greenpeace, don’t mention this, just that they’re “committed to switch to sustainable palm oil by 2020”. I was really pleased to be informed on twitter this evening that the EU brought in a new labeling law in December, ruling that companies have to say what vegetable the oil originates from. I’ve updated the post to reflect this information 🙂
Always a vicious circle. Cheap product grows well in third world country. It’s exploited to the ignorance of the first world. By the time we are informed, so much damage already done, and then takes too long to rectify.
Palm oil is also very bad for the body.
Why do we have to interfere with food? Why are we producing more and more inedible and indigestible food. It’s incredulous that we as a race are ok with this. It’s not progression, it’s regression. Basic greed, with complications.
Great article Dee, thanks for writing it and adding to our education
You have it in one Elaine. Greed. I don’t know how some people sleep at night. Have they no conscience, no morals? I can’t get my head around it at all. All we can do is keep spreading the word, keep informing people and hope that people power wins through. Thanks for the comment.
Interesting to see Nestle in the ‘most progressive’ category here. That must be a first for them! I know they were targeted quite heavily a few years ago by Greenpeace and again since by others.
In truth companies need to answer to their shareholders who always want profit whatever the cost to people and the environment. As long as this is a priority it’s going to keep killing the planet 🙁
I was surprised by Néstle too for the same reasons both you and Lorna have mentioned. It’s good to see that the pressures put upon the big corporations can see through. The shareholders have a lot to answer for. Easy to sit back and not dirty the hands.
An oil palm produces 10 times as much oil per hectare as soybeans, 5 times as much as rapeseed and 2 times as much as coconuts. Therefore, how can all of you blame something ridicilious by fake and rumous. For example, just imagine how big the area of soybean will take for produce oil same as oil palm. Each palm oil will lasting for 25 – 30y as economic production rather than soybeans (4 months).. So soybeans will take a huge area plus increase the polution during the replanting.
If you are talking about dangerous species, how many species had lost during the clearing area for soybean plantation. Please use a brain and look for the facts.. don’t blame other people since your hand is dirty.
Johny, my brain is well used thank you. The post was well researched and as far as I’m aware, does not contain false facts. I agree, soybean and coconut production is a massive issue too and as much as I’d like to hold my hands up and say I never use either, all are virtually impossible to avoid due to their overuse by industry. We do, however, avoid them where possible, reading all labels before they enter our home. Never mind the economic costs, you forgot to mention the displacement of indigenous people and wildlife, and the cost to the planet as it warms due to the extensive clearance of the rain forests. Where will we all be when they’ve gone I wonder.