Palm oil is one of the most controversial environmental issues of our day and yet the controversy hasn’t led to a significant improvement in consumer education. I offer myself as an example. Until researching for this post, I didn’t realize my Pantene shampoo and conditioner had palm oil in it. Now having a better understanding of the ubiquitous use of the resource, it seems very obvious that Pantene would use it in its products, but I hadn’t thought to check.
The production and use of palm oil is a nuanced issue. There are arguments for boycotting palm oil, not boycotting palm oil, sourcing sustainably, and questioning products that are certified sustainable.
In order to become more informed consumers, we first need to understand what palm oil is and what it is used for. Palm oil first came on the market in the 1990s as a replacement for the unhealthy trans fat commonly found in products like margarine. And because the oil could be easily and cheaply “fractionated”, meaning it could be separated into oils of various consistencies, its usefulness for many different kinds of products was quickly discovered. Soon, products ranging from food to cosmetics relied on the oil. And on top of is inexpensiveness and versatility, palm oil was marketed as a more environmentally friendly option. For instance, the cosmetic industry used to rely on animal tallow to make products easy to apply, until palm oil was discovered.
However, palm oil was not the environmentally friendly item everyone thought it was. Oil palms, the plants that produce palm oil in their fruit, grow best in low-lying, tropical areas, which are home to rainforests, peatlands, and many endangered species, such as the orangutan (probably the species most closely associated with palm oil) as well as tigers and rhinos. In order to keep up with the demand for more palm, producers burned (and continue to burn) large areas of forest to cultivate more of the fruit. By burning the forest and peatlands, copious amounts of carbon are released into the atmosphere (up to 10x more than a regular forest fire). It also means that these carbon sinks no longer have the capacity to store carbon, the local ecosystem is dramatically disturbed, and vulnerable species lose precious habitat. All around, pretty disastrous.
However, as bad as these environmental effects sound, it could be worse. Palm oil is produced extremely efficiently – that’s in part what makes it so cheap. Alternatives would most likely put additional strain on ecosystems as greater plots of land would be required to produce the same amount of product.
So where does that leave us as consumers? Is it wiser to avoid palm oil altogether (if that’s even possible)? Are there sustainable sources of palm oil?
Some brands will boast a sustainably sourced palm oil certification. In 2004, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) helped establish the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), which sought to encourage sustainable production of palm oil through certification. Unfortunately, the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) noted in its report, Who Watches the Watchmen 2, “The RSPO’s poor assurance systems means its certification has not necessarily resulted in tangible impacts. There has been no significant difference found between certified and non-certified plantations.”
Fully guaranteeing sustainable palm oil sourcing is tricky due to highly complex supply chains. As a consumers, we could certainly seek out products that are certified sustainable by RSPO. There’s always the possibility that there’s some benefit. However, I would also recommend researching the brand. Look for honesty in the ingredients list – avoid brands that hide behind terms such as “vegetable oil” or “vegetable fat”. This transparency could also come in the form of an online resource detailing how the company acquires palm oil and its derivatives.
Also, as a side note, it’s probably a good idea to avoid fast food chains and overly processed foods (like my beloved Oreos). These foods can be chop full of palm oil and because they’re so cheap, you can pretty much bet it’s not sustainably sourced.
And don’t forget that petitioning companies to seek sustainable forms of palm oil can be a valuable course of action. As long as we continue to rely on palm oil so heavily, the goal will be to minimize future deforestation. Pushing brands to seek out palm oil that doesn’t come from newly deforested areas can be a valuable step.
There are many complexities to palm oil, from production to consumption. Hopefully, an equally efficient, more eco-friendly alternative will be cultivated soon. Until then, we need to work to maintain awareness of products’ ingredients and their sustainability. Palm oil is far from being an ideal ingredient, but the more we know, the more we can push for the most sustainable version of this resource.
British Broadcasting Corporation. (2018, November 13). Iceland Christmas Ad: Petition to Show It on TV Hits 670k. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/newsbeat-46187070
Environmental Investigation Agency. (2019, November 5). Who Watches the Watchmen? 2. Retrieved from https://eia-international.org/report/who-watches-the-watchmen-2/
Fassler, J. (2016, March). Giving Up Palm Oil Might Actually Be Bad for the Environment. Retrieved from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/giving-up-palm-oil-might-actually-be-bad-environment-180958092/
Gabbatiss, J. (2018, Tuesday 13). Why Is Palm Oil Bad for the Environment and What Can People Do to Help? Retrieved from https://www.independent.co.uk/environment/palm-oil-environment-orangutans-indonesia-rainforests-iceland-christmas-advert-a8631896.html#gsc.tab=0
Imperial College London. (2018, May 25). ‘Deforestation-free’ palm oil not as simple as it sounds. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/05/180525123209.htm
Paddison, L. (2017, July 17). HSBC Triggers Investigation Into Palm Oil Company Over Deforestation Allegations. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2017/jul/17/hsbc-investigation-palm-oil-company-deforestation-allegations-noble-plantations
Ragg, M. How to Avoid Products With Palm Oil. Retrieved from https://greenglobaltravel.com/how-to-avoid-products-with-palm-oil/
Tullis, P. (2019, February 19). How the World Got Hooked on Palm Oil. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/news/2019/feb/19/palm-oil-ingredient-biscuits-shampoo-environmental
Vaidehi, S. (2017, March 23). What Is Sustainable Palm Oil? Retrieved from https://www.eco-business.com/news/what-is-sustainable-palm-oil/