Is there sustainable palm oil?

Brands use palm oil in a lot of the products we buy from the supermarket, from food to cosmetics but it has a bad reputation in environmental communities. This is because the production of palm oil results in deforestation in countries where wildlife is endangered. Rainforests also play a vital role in regulating the global climate (Eden Project). We ask the question: is there sustainable palm oil? 

What is palm oil made from?

Palm oil is made from the fruit of oil palm trees (Elaeis guineensis). The oil is squeezed out of the fruit to make crude palm oil and the kernel is crushed to make palm kernel oil (WWF). 

Oil palm, sometimes called African oil palm, occurs naturally in riverines in west and central Africa. The trees can reach 30m high and the fruit is a shiny reddish brown colour. Oil palms were extracted from west Africa in the 1700s and planted in Europe and north America. Commercial plantations started in Asia before the second world war (Oxford Plants). Indonesia and Malaysia now supply 85% of the world’s palm oil.

The demand for palm oil is huge – up to 45% of the global edible-oil market. Large corporations use it in products like Palmolive soap and Sunlight soap (Guardian). It is also used in as much as 50% of the products we buy in our supermarkets, it is in pizza, chocolate, doughnuts, deodorant, toothpaste, shampoo and even lipstick! 

The properties of palm oil are what make it so popular: it stops ice cream from melting, it makes spreads spreadable, it makes soap more bubbly, it makes lipstick smoother to apply, it gives fried foods a crispy texture, and it doesn’t change the taste or smell of foods. And it is cheap. 

Why is palm oil so harmful?

Palm oil is harmful for a variety of reasons. Rainforests are vital carbon sinks that prevent climate change. Clear cutting to make way for palm oil plantations has devastated forests in Indonesia and Malaysia. Old palm oil plantations are left to rot, while new virgin forests of diverse species are cut down to start new plantations of this single crop. 

Methane is a greenhouse gas that is 34 times more potent than Co2. Rotting palm trees produce methane and the waste water at refineries also emit methane, contributing to climate change (Climate Central). 

The wildlife in these areas, including orangutans, sunbears, pygmy elephants, Sumatran tigers and rhinos have lost their habitats and many of them are endangered species.

Amnesty International reports lots of issues with palm oil employment, including child labour and dangerous working conditions, low wages and long hours, and no benefits.

The trouble is that palm oil is now so embedded in many food and beauty production cycles that it is difficult to reverse. In 2018, Iceland declared that it would remove palm oil from all of its products, but in the end it was easier to remove their branding from the products (BBC). 

Is there sustainable palm oil?

Palm oil, like any other crop, could be sustainably produced. In 2004, the WWF convinced a number of partners to join the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil with a view to starting a certification system that would ensure transparency and drive up the price of palm oil, in turn increasing wages. But the Environmental Investigation Agency raised concerns about the project. RSPO says they needed to lower standards to increase takeup on the scheme, with a plan to eventually tighten up certification once growers and plantations had seen the benefit of an increased price for more sustainable palm oil. 

The reality is that the only way to ensure a product meets ethical and sustainable standards is to purchase it from a local or traceable company. Find companies like this in our Blue Patch directory.

Annette Clubley

Annette is a keen wildlife conservationist, mindful of sustainability and our impact on the environment. Outside of work, family is her focus and she loves teaching the next generation to enjoy the outdoors.