Palm oil is in everything from food items to toiletries, but it comes at an environmental cost. We look at whether it can be sustainable and if there are any alternatives
You may not know it, but it’s likely that you’ve used palm oil today. You may have brushed your teeth with it this morning, spread it on your toast, or maybe you applied it to your face as part of your makeup routine. It may even have fueled your bus or car. According to the WWF its use is so widespread that it is in nearly 50 percent of packaged products that we can see on the supermarket aisles today, from chocolate and pizza to shampoo.
It’s this vegetable oil’s versatility that has led it to become the wonder product by the world’s biggest manufacturers: it keeps crisps crispier, spreads more spreadable and lipsticks smooth and solid. The fact that it yields more oil per land area than other vegetable oil crops, such as olive oil or rapeseed, only adds to its economic appeal; making it the least expensive vegetable oil in the world. But our reliance on this oil has far-reaching and increasingly devastating consequences for some of the world's most biodiverse habitats.
Indonesia and Malaysia make up over 85 percent of the global supply of palm oil (Elaeis guineensis), which is produced from the fruit of oil palm trees—either by squeezing the flesh or crushing the fruit’s stone. To produce it, millions of hectares of previously untouched forest are razed to the ground to make space for orderly lines of oil palm trees. And with it goes the natural habitat of some of the world’s most endangered species, including the Bornean Orangutan—whose plight has become synonymous with deforestation—as well as the Sumatran rhino and pygmy elephant. Several forest species are only found in such habitats, and only a fraction of them can also survive in palm oil plantations. Some plantations have also been responsible for forcibly displacing people from their land and creating plantations on their land without local communities’ consent.
The effects of this deforestation aren’t just local either, burning vast amounts of rainforest also leads to higher carbon emissions that are a key driver in climate change. One hectare of converted land equates to a loss of 174 tons of carbon, and most of this carbon will find its way into the air as CO2, according to a 2018 study. "The quantity of carbon released when just one hectare of forest is cleared to grow oil palms is roughly equivalent to the amount of carbon produced by 530 people flying from Geneva to New York in economy class," says the researcher.
“Companies should not be using as much palm oil as they are and they should have real traceability in their supply chain; only buying from traders and producers that can guarantee their supply has not been driving deforestation,” says Chiara Vitali from Greenpeace UK.
“In an ideal world, palm oil producers would be required to make public all the concessions (land) that they own across Indonesia. Companies buying palm oil would be able to trace their purchase to the concession that it came from and be monitoring that concession for deforestation with satellite images. They would be able to see which other concessions were owned by that producer and therefore any deforestation occurring within those concessions would be immediately traceable.”
The Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil, a not-for-profit that unites oil palm producers, processors or traders, consumer goods manufacturers, retailers, and NGOs, to develop and implement global standards for sustainable palm oil aims to regulate the palm oil industry. Manufacturers which comply with their criteria can then label their products as sustainable, including Boots and Marks & Spencer.
One of the key RSPO criteria states no primary forests or areas which contain significant concentrations of biodiversity (for example endangered species), fragile ecosystems or culturally-significant land to local communities can be cleared.
Can palm oil ever be sustainable?
Sustainable palm oil is very difficult to guarantee, according to Greenpeace. “Even palm oil certified as sustainable by the industry body, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), is not reliably sustainable,” says Vitali.
“Companies like Unilever and Nestle promised by 2020 that they would end deforestation for commodities including palm oil by making their supply chains transparent and dropping any companies that could not prove their supply chain was clean. They have completely failed to do this,” she adds.
“The situation is now so serious that there’s no option but for these companies to dramatically reduce the palm oil they are buying and only buy from companies that can prove they are not destroying rainforest.”
Greenpeace has gone as far as to say that ‘sustainable’ palm oil is a ‘con’ on their website. “It took 14 years for the RSPO to ban its members from destroying forests – which it finally did in November 2018. It still hasn’t enforced this new rule – and RSPO members are still destroying forests and getting away with it.”
A Unilever spokesperson responded, “Unilever has been leading efforts to end deforestation and is fully committed to working with suppliers and partners around the world to make this happen. We helped pioneer the RSPO and were the first FMCG to publish a list of suppliers and third-party mills in our palm oil supply chain.
“Zero net deforestation is a huge challenge is only achievable through collaboration with businesses, farmers and governments. To this end, have been enhancing our efforts to increase traceability through emerging technologies such as satellites, geolocation, blockchain and artificial intelligence, and are working with major technology firms and start-ups to develop new approaches from which the whole industry can benefit.” Nestle was approached for comment.