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Palm oil. We all use and consume products that contain it on a daily basis. And now, thanks to that Iceland advert, we’ve all been made aware of it. This Simple Step is all about palm oil and how we can change our shopping habits to help combat the devastating impact that the palm oil industry is having on the environment, on animals like orangutans and on people native to the tropical forests that are being cleared for palm oil plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia.
The Iceland advert
For those of you who have been sleeping under a rock, the Iceland TV advert about palm oil was banned for being too political. It subsequently went viral on social media and, at the time of writing, has been watched over 5.6 million times on YouTube. The advert was originally made by Greenpeace and concerns the devastating impact of the palm oil industry on the environment.
The advert struck a chord with many, many people and there was real outrage at it being banned. The ban itself, was, however, correct: Greenpeace is considered to be a body “whose object is wholly or mainly of a political nature”, and advertisements made by such bodies contravene the 2003 Communications Act.1 But this doesn’t change the fact that the advert did a lot of good. If nothing else, it has served to highlight the huge problems with the palm oil industry – problems that most of us didn’t even realise we were contributing to.
Before we go on to look at the issues, let’s watch the advert about Rangtan, the orangutan:
But, the palm oil issue is not as simple as it may first appear. I am guilty of being one of those whose initial reaction was, and I quote:
“Banned by the advertising standards’ agency for being too political. Since when was protecting the earth that we live on too political?”
“We are trying to go palm-oil-free in our household. The kids are fully onboard but equally slightly gutted that both Nutella and Krave contain palm oil. Recommendations for (nice) chocolate spreads and chocolate cereals that don’t contain palm oil desperately needed!”
These well-intentioned responses were echoed across social media. The advert made it clear: the only response to the problems associated with palm oil are to boycott it and all the products that contain it.
But, sadly, it isn’t that simple.
Simple Step #1 is not “Boycott palm oil”, but rather “Say no to non-sustainable palm oil”.
Read on to find out why boycotting palm oil completely won’t help and why, instead, we should still buy (some) products containing palm oil.
The problem with palm oil
Palm oil is the most popular vegetable oil in the world. Why? Because it is an extremely efficient crop. Palm oil plants yield four to ten times more oil per unit of land than other oil-producing plants like rapeseed and soybean, and palm oil plants require less pesticide and fertiliser.2 As such, it is cheap and demand is high.
Palm oil used to be planted in small-scale sustainable systems, but, as demand is now so high, these have given way to large-scale plantations.
Up to 300 football fields of forest are cleared every hour to make space for palm oil plantations, mainly in Southeast Asia.
This means stripping huge areas of rainforest bare – critical habitats for orangutans and other endangered species, such as rhinos, tigers and elephants.3 The land is often cleared using slash and burn methods, which involves setting fire to large parts of forest. This not only destroys everything in the fires’ path, including entire ecosystems, but also releases huge amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere. Much of the forest in Indonesia is on peatland and peatlands store vast quantities of carbon.
Converting just one hectare of Indonesian peatland to plantations releases up to 6,000 tons of CO2.
As a result, tropical deforestation is currently responsible for about 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, making it a significant contributor to climate change.4
And it is not just the environment that is suffering at the hands of the palm oil industry. People are too. The land used for the plantations is often stolen from local communities. These people are forced to leave their homes or are no longer able to farm the land to feed their communities. Research by Amnesty International also shows that human rights violations are common on palm oil plantations. Workers are underpaid, forced to work with dangerous chemicals and without adequate safety regulations, and child labour is rife.5
Unfortunately, as long as demand remains high, these practices look set to continue. 270,000 hectares of rainforest is cleared annually for palm oil plantations.6 It is a vast area and it is having a huge impact on the environment. So what is all this palm oil actually being used for?
Products containing palm oil
The main use for palm oil is biofuel. It is responsible for 50% of the palm oil imported into the EU. Since 2009, EU legislation has stipulated that biofuel must be mixed with regular fuel, and as palm oil is the most efficient and cheapest type of biofuel, it is palm oil-based biofuel that most countries choose to mix with regular fuel to comply with EU regulations.
Palm oil is also used in animal feed: on average, around 24 grams of palm oil are used to produce one kilogram of beef; it is 44 grams for chicken and 17 grams for eggs.7
Short of going vegan and campaigning against the use of palm oil in biofuels, there isn’t much we can do about these two issues. But we can make a difference with the products that we buy at the supermarket. Especially when you consider that
Around half of products sold in an average supermarket contain palm oil.
HALF! And chances are, you will already have consumed palm oil today without realising it. Once you start looking closely, you will find it in almost everything you use at home. From food to shampoo to laundry detergent. A quick look through the things we use at breakfast in our household and we found it in our cereal (Krave), our bread (Jacksons), our chocolate spread (Nutella) and our margarine (Clover). I washed my hands and found it in our Baylis & Harding soap. I put some washing on and noticed it was in our “eco-friendly” detergent (Method). I looked a little further and found it in crisps, chocolate and toothpaste too. Palm oil is everywhere.
Other names for palm oil
Finding out which products contain palm oil isn’t always easy. Only a few manufacturers label their products as containing palm oil or palm fat, and these are mostly in the organic sector. Most companies disguise their use of palm oil and its derivatives by referring to it as vegetable oil or vegetable fats.8 In actual fact, all of the products in this list below may contain or be derived from palm oil. Boycotting palm oil means avoiding all products containing these items:
- Elaeis guineensis
- Etyl palmitate
- Hydrogenated palm glycerides
- Octyl palmitate
- Palm fruit oil
- Palm kernel
- Palm kernel oil
- Palm stearine
- Palmitic acid
- Palmitoyl oxostearamide
- Palmitoyl tetrapeptide-3
- Palmityl alcohol
- Sodium kernelate
- Sodium laureth sulfate
- Sodium lauryl lactylate/sulphate
- Sodium lauryl sulfate
- Sodium palm kernelate
- Stearic acid
- Vegetable fat
- Vegetable oil9
So, what should we do?
Should we boycott palm oil altogether?
The devastating environmental impact of the palm oil industry is undeniable and the obvious response is to try and reduce the amount of palm oil that we use. When we shop, we can check the ingredients on the products we buy and try to avoid palm oil where possible – this generally means buying fewer processed goods in favour of natural and organic products.
But, despite Iceland’s claim that they will no longer sell any own-brand items containing palm oil, there are problems involved with boycotting palm oil altogether. Some argue that Iceland are over-simplifying a complex issue.
The main problem with palm oil is not the product itself. In fact, replacing palm oil with other types of vegetable oil (such as sunflower, soybean or rapeseed oil) would mean using far more land, as palm trees produce four to ten times more oil than other crops per unit of cultivated land. This could potentially increase environmental damage, as more forests would need to be converted into agricultural land.10 There is also the human impact:
“Millions of farmers and their families currently work in the palm oil sector and palm oil plays an important role in the reduction of poverty in these areas. In Indonesia and Malaysia, a total of 4.5 million people earn their living from palm oil production. Stopping the production of palm oil altogether would create significant problems for these people who support their families by working in this industry.” [RSPO website]11
The problem with the palm oil industry is the deforestation associated with it. It is not the crop itself, but the way it is farmed. By boycotting palm oil altogether, we would simply be increasing demand for other types of oil, produced by less efficient crops.
It is also worth noting here that palm oil is not the only industry responsible for wide-scale deforestation. In fact, there are four main industries responsible for 99% of global deforestation: animal agriculture (mainly cattle ranching), soybean, palm oil and timber. The animal agriculture industry is far and away the worst offender here:
In Latin America alone, 2.71 million hectares of tropical forest is cleared each year to make way ranching land for cattle. This is 5 times more than any other commodity in the region.
480,000 hectares are cleared annually for soybean plantations. And don’t blame the vegans here, it is actually meat eaters who are responsible for this destruction too: only 6% of soy beans are sold directly for human consumption. Compare this to the 75% that are used for animal feed. The remainder is used as biofuel. Finally, the timber industry is responsible for around 10% of global deforestation.12
So, although we can reduce our consumption of palm oil, boycotting it altogether is somewhat oversimplifying the issue. If we care about the environment enough to boycott palm oil, we should really be boycotting the meat industry too and we certainly shouldn’t be using any biofuels if we can help it.
Here at Simple Steps, we want to make suggestions for things that people can realistically implement in their lives. To make small incremental changes that can make a difference and inspire others to do the same.
So, what can we do about palm oil?
We should certainly seek to reduce the amount of palm oil that we use wherever possible. Switching to organic and higher quality, more natural products rather than mass-produced goods helps. Unfortunately, mass-produced goods containing palm oil are generally much cheaper, so this isn’t an option for everyone. Buy decent fair-trade or direct-trade coffee rather than instant coffee, for example. Instead of pigging out on Galaxy chocolate, buy higher quality organic dark chocolate. And buy products from companies with a good reputation for being ethical and eco-friendly, rather than supporting multinationals with a dodgy reputation when it comes to the environment and human rights – yes, Nestle, I am looking at you.
Sadly, it is almost impossible to avoid palm oil altogether and, as mentioned above, this wouldn’t necessarily resolve the issue. There is always going to be demand for vegetable oils and palm oil is the most efficient of them all. So, in addition to reducing the number of products containing palm oil that we buy, the best thing to do is to support those seeking to make the industry more sustainable. We need to do what we can to move the industry away from devastating deforestation and human rights violations and towards sustainable farming practices.
Sustainable palm oil and the RSPO
Sustainable palm oil does exist. The RSPO – or Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil – was founded in 2003 by the WWF, with partners including Aarhus United UK Ltd, Migros, Malaysian Palm Oil Association and Unilever. In 2008, the RSPO developed a set of environmental and social criteria which companies must comply with in order to produce Certified Sustainable Palm Oil:
The RSPO has grown from strength to strength and now has 4,040 members, including oil palm producers, processors and traders, consumer goods manufacturers, retailers, banks/investors, and environmental and social non-governmental organisations (NGOs).
19% of all palm oil produced globally is sustainable. The more people that support sustainable palm oil, the more this figure will grow. As consumers, we can choose to support those companies that are 100% committed to sustainable palm oil and we can do our best to avoid buying products containing non-sustainable palm oil. We can put pressure on companies to up their game and make it clear that we are not willing to support the appalling industry practices of slash and burn forest clearing, child labour and exploitation of workers.
Well, that sounds like something concrete and positive. Unfortunately, once again, it is not that simple. Although the RSPO was founded by the WWF, major players include large corporations like Unilever, Cargill, Wilmar International and Nestle. The label association is chaired by a senior executive of the Unilever Group (Dove, Knorr, Rama, etc.) – in other words, one of the world‘s biggest purchasers of palm oil that consumes an annual 1.4 million tons.
According to the factsheet on palm oil produced by the Rainforest Rescue,
“The aim of the industry label is to promote the production and sale of palm oil even further, and restore its social acceptability.”13
The RSPO doesn’t rule out the clearing of rainforest, and Wilmar, the world’s leading palm oil company, is apparently involved in 100 land conflicts and human rights violations in Indonesia alone. Meanwhile, “Sinar Mas, another major RSPO player, has cleared tropical rainforest all over the country for its palm oil plantations, and is still expanding rapidly.”14
In the view of Greenpeace, the RSPO label is “little more than greenwash”.15
Which companies to support and which to avoid
So, how do we know which companies are truly committed to sustainable palm oil and which are just looking to improve their PR? Well, this is where it gets a little tricky. According to the RSPO website, UK companies committed to sustainable palm oil include Waitrose, M&S, Jordans and, of course, one of the founding members of RSPO, Unilever. They also display the logos of Kelloggs, Nestle, L’Oreal, Starbucks, P&G and Ferrero on their website, as companies committed to sustainable palm oil.16 However, as we have already discussed, being part of the RSPO could in some cases just be a PR exercise. Being a member of the RSPO is not enough.
The WWF has a Palm Oil Scorecard that you can check here. It is not an exhaustive list by any means, but it does list some big brands and provides some detail about how they are matching up to their claims to be supporting sustainable palm oil. Nestle, for example – despite being listed on the RSPO site – gets a 6 out of 9 points. The company is a member of the RSPO and it committed to using 100% certified sustainable palm oil (or CSPO) by 2013. Despite this, in 2016, when the scorecard was made, only 24% of the 417,834 tonnes of palm oil the company used was certified sustainable.
There is also this handy graphic:
In short, it is difficult to know how sustainable the palm oil used by companies is. As a general rule of thumb, if the product disguises the palm oil that it contains then it is probably not sustainably sourced. If the company makes no mention of its commitment to sustainable palm oil (Baylis & Harding, for example), it is probably not sustainably sourced. (Incidentally, Ferrero, the company behind Nutella, claims to use 100% sustainable palm oil.) If the company is known for its ethical inconsistencies, should we say, then it is worth digging a little deeper.
If you have no alternative to a product containing palm oil (vegan spreads for example), then opt for one that says it contains only 100% sustainable palm oil on the label. Choose organic products and try to support eco-friendly companies, like Method or Ecover.
Out of these products shown, the coffee, shampoo, shower gel and chocolate are all palm-oil free. Method are committed to sourcing sustainable palm oil (see below), Nutella is made with “sustainable palm oil” (more here) and Warburtons are one of the few bread suppliers actively seeking to ensure the palm oil they use is sustainably sourced (view their Palm Oil Statement here). The dairy-free spread contains 100% sustainable palm oil from RSPO sources.
If one thing has become clear, it is that palm oil is not a simple issue. We obviously need to try and use less of it. Large-scale deforestation, slash and burn clearing of tropical forests, the destruction of entire ecosystems, child labour and human rights violations – none of these things are acceptable. But simply using less palm oil and increasing the demand for other, less efficient oils won’t actually help matters.
There are two things that we can do, however:
- Try to buy fewer processed foods and other products, and instead opt for more natural alternatives (butter instead of margarine, for example) and organic products produced without any chemicals and using sustainable practices.
- Put pressure on companies to use sustainable palm oil. In other words, we can boycott companies not doing enough to ensure the palm oil that they use is 100% sustainable and we can support companies who are committed to sustainable palm oil.
Back to our own household. Happily, Nutella is made with 100% sustainable palm oil, so that is a keeper (although we have started making our own chocolate spread, which is completely palm-oil free.). Meanwhile, Method have this to say about their palm oil:
“we are working to ensure the environmental quality of the palm that method sources in two ways. first, we are choosing to work only with suppliers that are part of the RSPO the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil all of which have assurances of their plantations and practices not contributing to deforestation. second, we are working to source a method stock of sustainably produced palm oil from a producer in the Americas, where we have much greater awareness of the production techniques than with oil coming from largely anonymous suppliers on the other side of the world.”17
We are eating more porridge (including Hot Chocolate Porridge to satisfy my chocolate-loving kids) instead of Krave and other mass-produced cereals. We now eat fair-trade dark chocolate instead of Galaxy (apparently Mars are one of the worst offenders for non-sustainable palm oil) and I won’t be buying Baylis & Harding soap again until I see some evidence of their commitment to sustainable palm oil.
It has also brought a new awareness to our family. We check the labels on products we use. We see the chemicals and ingredients that are in the foods we eat and the soaps, detergents and other household items we buy. It has made us more aware of the impact our consumption has on the world, and it has made us more determined to try and tread more lightly.
The best way to reduce the devastating effects of the palm oil industry is to reduce our consumption. To think about what we buy and how it was made and the ecological footprint that we are making on the world. There is no easy answer to this. But by being a little more aware of what we buy, we can make a difference.