Palm oil: why it matters and what you can do

What is palm oil?

Palm oil is a vegetable oil that is highly efficient, cheap and very versatile. It is used in a huge range of products we all use regularly, and it tends to be grown in tropical regions of the world.

Why is palm oil important?

Palm oil is used in many common products sold in the supermarket including margarine, ice cream, confectionery, biscuits, chocolate, soap and cosmetics. Not only is palm oil a very high yielding crop (i.e. it is very efficient for farmers to grow) but it also has important properties such as being good for cooking at high heat, a creamy texture, no smell (so useful as an extra ingredient for cooking) and it’s a natural preservative. This explains why it is so common in the goods we buy.

Why is palm oil in the news?

 Unsustainable palm oil production leads to deforestation, threatens OrangutansSumatran TigersElephants and rhinos with extinction, as well as contributing to climate change. Local communities often suffer too.

Unsustainable palm oil production leads to a number of serious issues:

  • Huge swathes of virgin rainforest in Indonesia and Malaysia have been felled to grow palm oil. Palm trees thrive in humid conditions found in these two countries and half of the forests in Sumatra and Borneo have been lost in the last 20 years.
  • Loss of habitat for endangered species. Orangutans are critically endangered, listed on the IUCN Red List and the number of Borneo orangutans has declined by 25% in the last decade. At this rate they will be extinct in our lifetime. Many more species are at also at risk, including Sumatran Tigers, Rhinos and elephants. Rainforest destruction caused by palm oil plantations threatens 190 species on the ICUN Red list.
  • Climate change. Tropical forests and peatland are cleared for palm oil plantations but Indonesian forests are incredible stores of carbon dioxide. So much so that they store more carbon per acre than the Amazon. Peatlands can hold 18-28 times as much carbon as the forest above them and these are often also cleared for unsustainable palm oil plantations. As a result of this, tropical deforestation accounts for 15% of global warming pollution In fact, largely because of palm oil related deforestation, this makes Indonesia the world’s third largest emitter of global warming pollution as a result. Only China and the USA emit more.
  • Social impact. Lack of consultation with local communities about what happens to their land and worker rights are also a risk on some palm oil plantations. A report from Friends of the Earth found that palm oil companies use forced labour.
  • Air pollution. Each year, more than 100,000 deaths in Southeast Asia can be attributed to particulate matter exposure from landscape fires, many of which are peat fires, lit for forest clearance – slash and burn.

How do supermarkets shape up on palm oil?

Although this destruction is taking place far from our daily lives, it is the choices that we all make in our regular trips to the supermarket that can make a real difference. We have looked at some of the most popular aisles in UK supermarkets to see how much palm oil there is in each and how much is grown sustainably. Here is what we found:

Bathrooms and palm oil

Palm oil is frequently used for bathroom products as well as food, most often in the form of palm oil derivatives. In shampoos, just 3% met our criteria for sustainability, for soaps, it was 15%.

Why not just avoid palm oil? 

This is a valid response taken by many consumers. However, a number of NGOs support sustainable palm oil because replacing palm oil with other types of vegetable oil (such as sunflower, soybean or rapeseed oil) would mean that much larger amounts of land would need to be used, since palm trees produce 4-10 times more oil than other crops per unit of cultivated land. Furthermore in producing countries, millions of farmers and their families work in the palm oil sector. 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.

However, some people still choose to avoid palm oil because

1) it’s hard to know whether palm oil is truly sustainable

2) the impacts are just too great to take the risk and

3) the certification around RSPO sustainable palm oil don’t go far enough for some people.

What can you do?

Palm oil is often an indicator for processed food, so if you reduce use of processed food, you will be less likely to need to buy palm oil products. Fresh fruit and vegetables, meat, fish, as well as pasta, rice, noodles, pulses and beans in an unprocessed form all tend to be palm free.

When you buy chocolate, biscuits, bread, cakes, snacks, pies, pastries, sauces and most processed food, check the label. On food products, it is a legal requirement to list the ingredients and to list palm if it is included. In the UK, you can use the Giki app to check whether a product uses palm oil and if it is sustainable palm oil.

Haircare, make-up, cosmetics and bathroom products

There are hundreds of names for palm oil derivatives and it can often be pretty hard to identify it. Unlike food, in cosmetics and personal care products, it is not a legal requirement to list palm oil in a recognisable form to consumers. Chemicals such as sodium lauryl sulphate and cetyl palmitate are palm oil derivatives and it is often hard to find sustainably sourced versions of any of these derivatives. Sometimes opting for palm free is a popular option, due to the lack of choice of sustainable palm options.

How to make a difference

Do a Palm Oil audit at home – Read here to find out how to check your kitchen and bathrooms cupboards don’t contain palm oil or palm oil derivatives which are not sustainably produced. We also have a Facebook group where every week we post information on palm oil in popular supermarket aisles, to help everyone make more informed, more sustainable choices.

Contact the company: When many of us find out that our favourite chocolate bar may be linked to deforestation and driving animals such as orangutans and tigers closer to extinction, it can make us feel pretty angry. We can ask companies to change though – mass consumer pressure can work – at the end of the day, as consumers, especially if we all work together, we have the power to drive change.

Vote with your wallet: Stop buying products which may contain unsustainable palm oil.