The palm oil industry has been getting its fair share of attention lately as environmental and human rights abuses are being brought to light. This is why “palm oil free” is a criteria I look for in ALL of my sustainable beauty recommendations.
But what if I told you there is palm oil already on the store shelves being marketed as “sustainable” AND “certified”? It is true! Companies all over the world are signing up to comply with the standards set by the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).
While this all sounds fine and dandy, I have to admit I was a little skeptical when I first heard about the RSPO’s standards and knew I had to learn a bit more.
So, let’s talk about palm oil! Does eco-friendly and ethical palm oil even exist? Or is the RSPO and their “sustainable” palm oil just another case of corporate greenwashing?
What is palm oil?
Palm oil comes from the fruit of oil palm trees (Elaeis guineensis), a tree native to the coastal countries of West and Southwest Africa, but is currently grown commercially mainly in Indonesia and Malaysia. In fact, these two countries account for 85% of ALL the world's palm oil production (although plantations are quickly spreading across Asia, Africa, and Latin America to keep up with consumer demand).
This is pretty impressive when you consider the palm oil industry is currently valued at just over $62 billion USD.
Unrefined palm oil, which is oil pressed directly from palm, was often used in traditional cooking in Nigerian and Congolese cuisine. What we consume on the mass market today is known as “refined palm oil” which has undergone a number of processing steps to give it a more neutral color and flavor.
What products contain palm oil?
Palm oil is the most widely used vegetable oil in the world and is found in 50% of all products at the supermarket because it’s so cheap and versatile. For example, palm oil can be found in food products like chocolate, cereals, creamers, and margarine, as well as cosmetics, laundry detergent, and more. Additionally, Palm oil can be used to produce biodiesel fuel as an alternative to traditional fossil fuels.
I do want to mention here for my zero-waste living folks that as vegetable fat, palm oil-based products that have come into contact with meat or have been mixed with other synthetic chemicals would not break down in a compost pile, and most products that do contain palm oil are probably not compostable!
Adding too much oil to a compost bin might create anaerobic conditions and result in your kitchen compost bin becoming a smelly mess. Just another reason to avoid palm oil if you ask me…
What’s the problem with palm oil?
First off, the production of palm oil is one of the biggest contributors to deforestation globally. To make room for monocrop oil palm, tropical forests are burned which creates greenhouse gas emissions. Fires in peat areas are particularly difficult to put out and have been known to spread out of control.
This problem is only worsened by intense cultivation methods which result in soil erosion and water contamination.
All of this habitat destruction is a serious threat to biodiversity. According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), 193 species are endangered or threatened because of palm oil. These include Southeast Asian orangutans, proboscis monkeys, some species of Asian elephants, rhinos, and tigers.
According to the World Wildlife Fund, even national parks are being impacted! The Tesso Nilo National Park in Sumatra, for example, was established to protect the endangered Sumatran Tiger. At the time of writing this article, 43% of the park is now overrun with illegal palm plantations.
Palm oil deforestation isn’t the only problem here… Another issue with the palm industry is labor rights and human welfare. A case study conducted in 2016 looked at 120 palm oil workers - including children - who worked on palm plantations in Kalimantan and Sumatra.
They found the palm oil industry to be riddled with child laborers who work without any safety equipment and are constantly exposed to dangerous chemicals like weed killers, pesticides, and fertilizer.
They also found cases of gender discrimination where plantations were hiring women as casual daily laborers in denying them permanent employment which would provide them with Social Security benefits like health insurance and pensions.
Now the palm oil industry isn’t all bad! Lower-income countries in Asia and the Middle East rely heavily on the palm oil industry for their GDP. To completely cease the production of palm oil would put thousands of people out of work who might not have the skills or training to easily transition over to another industry or job.
This is important to consider when thinking about some of the potential solutions to improve the palm oil industry…
Is sustainable palm oil the real deal?
RSPO, or the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil, is a group of palm oil producers, buyers, and NGOs. Together, they represent the global standard meant to bring some credibility to “sustainable palm oil”. But to be certified by the RSPO standard, a palm oil producer has to meet some pretty vague criteria…
First, a certified company must first have a transparent supply chain and grow their palm tree plantations responsibly which means they can’t clear any primary “high-value” conservation forests. As you can probably guess, “high-value” is an extremely vague term and is open to interpretation.
RSPO-certified companies must also treat their workers fairly and support smaller growers. Finally, they should constantly measure their greenhouse gas emissions while protecting the native wildlife in the area. According to RSPO, third-party auditors will come in and inspect every plantation to make sure these standards are consistently met.
So, is sustainable palm oil the real deal or is it just greenwashing?
While the criteria set by the RSPO standard might have the best intentions, environmental organizations like Greenpeace have questioned in the past if the standards are even being enforced at all. They once said “the RSPO is about as much use as a chocolate teapot” and they aren’t wrong!
First off, the RSPO members themselves are the representatives of the very industry that is causing the problem. In fact, only 6.7% of RSPO members are actually from relevant conservation or social development groups!
Their founding members include the World Wildlife Fund, the Malaysian Palm Oil Association (MPOA), AAK, Migros, and Unilever (the parent company of brands like Dove, TRESemmé, Magnum, and Vaseline). This lack of enough REAL environmental representation can bring a huge amount of industry bias when the round table comes together every five years to review the standards.
And the third-party auditors meant to ensure the RSPO standards are being met? They aren’t so great either! A report published by the Environmental Investigation Agency and Grassroots highlighting RSPO’s systemic flaws found that the RSPO members themselves may be colluding with palm plantations to help cover up violations.
Because of this link between growers, financiers, and buyers of palm oil, there is little transparency in palm oil production or repercussions for those who fail to meet RSPO standards. For example, deforestation linked to palm oil has intensified forest fires throughout Indonesia.
In 2019, Greenpeace found that ¾ of the fires linked to palm oil companies were on RSPO members' land. To put this into context, over 3 million hectares of land were burned between 2015 and 2018 in Indonesia.
Even more concerning is that during this time, only a small handful of palm oil groups responsible for the fires received any serious civil or administrative sanctions as a result.
The lack of repercussions here has some pretty serious impacts on Indonesia’s economy and the well-being and health of the Indonesian people. The World Bank estimates that the crisis in just 2015 alone cost Indonesia $16 billion USD in losses to agriculture, tourism, forestry, and other industries.
RSPO certification is the very definition of greenwashing! We need buy-in across the entire industry as to what criteria actually qualify as “sustainable palm oil” and a better vetting process to make sure the standards are consistently being met.
Considering about 20% of palm oil producers have been certified by the RSPO and there still are no real safeguards in place to protect people or the planet, I would say we are off to a good start but we still have a long way to go.
Palm oil alternatives
All of this is to say sustainable palm oil doesn’t exist yet. And until it does I would recommend you stay on the lookout for more eco-friendly alternatives! Sunflower oil, rapeseed, or coconut are all better alternatives to palm oil.
Unfortunately, these alternatives are unlikely to be adopted throughout the industry on a mass scale anytime soon since palm oil is a much more effective crop and yields up to 10 times more oil from the same amount of land when compared to these alternatives.
We can choose to consume less and ask brands who are using plam oil, if they can find alternatives. The more we speak up the better for all of us.
What is palm oil free?
Another option is to avoid palm oil altogether and choose products that don’t use palm oil! From palm oil free shampoo, to butter, to makeup, to perfume, there is almost always a palm oil free version on the market. The Ethical Consumer has a list of some palm oil free products and brands to help get you started.
Speaking of great brands, The Bare Home is one of my favorites because they have a zero-waste laundry detergent which I LOVE that also doesn’t contain any palm oil! They also have other household products like dish soap, hand soap, and all-purpose cleaners that also do not contain palm oil. Other brands like The Eco Alchemist, Plaine Products, and Ethique are other great ones to add to your list.
I also recently started using palm oil free toothpaste as an eco-friendly new years resolution and I highly recommend you give it a try!
A final word on palm oil free
Sustainable certifications aren’t always as simple as they seem. While the RSPO has good intentions and some kind of standards are better than none at all, they have to clean up their act before we can confidently say we are REALLY buying eco-friendly palm oil.
However, it can be difficult to only buy products that don’t contain any palm oil since it’s so prevalent in cooking, beauty, and cleaning products. With this being said, I would encourage all of my readers to think about sustainable living as a journey rather than a destination. Start with small substitutions and avoid palm oil when you can! You got this!