Shocked with photos of devastated forests and slaughtered orangutans, the image we have of palm oil has, deservedly, taken a hit. Despite its known consequences, palm oil remains the most consumed fat in the world, present in half of all supermarket products. But manufacturers assure us that their palm oil is responsibly sourced. A green palm-tree logo means we can guiltlessly stuff our faces with chocolate spread, right? Something about that just doesn’t add up…
What’s the problem with palm oil?
Palm oil symbolizes our relentless destruction of the planet. Why is it so disastrous? Well, the palms that produce the oil-giving fruits only grow in equatorial regions, and 85% of palm oil production is concentrated in Indonesia and Malaysia. The very same areas which are home to some of the most biodiverse forests in the world, untouched land, never felled or exploited. An ecological treasure!
But forests take up a lot of space… And they don’t leave much room for palms to grow. This is no problem for manufacturers though, who unblinkingly cut down forests and cultivate palm plantations. Their motivations are simple: a quarter of the world’s vegetable oil market – 70 million tons produced in 2018, that’s more than 2.2 tons every second – which has grown over 100% in 12 years. Every day, thousands of hectares of forest go up in smoke, and this has been the norm for several decades. 80% of Indonesian forests are affected by deforestation, their total area having halved since 1960. They’re replanting the palms they cut down though, so does it really harm the environment? Yes!
Oil palms capture 3 times less CO2 than tropical trees which release their enormous quantities in the constant forest fires. The region is suffocating: Indonesia is now the 3rd greatest greenhouse gas emitter, after China and the USA.
The natural habitats of hundreds of species of animals is being turned upside down: Sumatran tigers and elephants, Bornean rhinos, orangutans… are all critically endangered. The declining biodiversity of these rich ecosystems is no longer just a risk, it’s well underway. One orangutan dies every two hours, a victim of the cruel palm oil industry.
This industry is highly polluting and socially disastrous. Production is reliant on toxic products and the employment of carcinogenic and neurotoxic pesticides which, for several years, have been banned in Europe and the exploitation of local communities. This is an industry in which Amnesty International regularly reports cases of child-labour, forced-labour and shameful sanitation. But none of this makes a dent in this extremely profitable industry.
Responsibly-sourced palm oil as greenwashing
There is one thing that manufacturers do pay attention to: their sales. More informed and socially-concerned, 7 out of 10 French people today say they take care to try and avoid consuming palm oil. To compliment this rise in awareness, with support from NGOs like WWF, the industry created the RSPO, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil in 2004. Their objective? To restore palm oil’s image. How? By defining a good-practice code for more ethical production and an associated label, CSPO, Certified Sustainable Palm Oil. Sounds promising… In theory.
Because in reality, this label guarantees nothing. Different categories of certification give manufacturers the right to stick a pretty Green Palm logo on their products. It is possible to apply the whole good-practice code to one sole strand of production, ignoring what happens elsewhere. And what risks do labeled companies face if they don’t respect these criteria? A warning. At worst, temporary exclusion from the category. The Green Palm logo can even be bought! In exchange for a financial contribution, the company has the right to fix the CSPO logo on their products that contain 0% responsibly-sourced palm oil. Suddenly the pretty green logo doesn’t seem so cute.
Regardless, even when respected 100%, the code’s content is insufficient. It prohibits neither polluting neurotoxic pesticides nor the disastrous forest-burning technique. And if it declares itself champion of the fight against deforestation, it only protects today’s primary forests. Secondary forests, those that have grown back after exploitation, are still ripe for destruction. Correct, palm groves presiding over a primary forest burned down before 2005 are proclaimed ethical and a certified company can burn down hectares of secondary forest on a daily basis. In some areas barely 15% of forests are protected. The height of hypocrisy: to reduce deforestation, some companies are claiming the agricultural land of local communities who need to use the local resources to feed themselves.
In short, the label ‘responsibly sourced palm oil’ changes nothing. Deforestation and fires continue even in protected forests, there are constant conflicts between industries and the local communities, who are expropriated and poisoned by their own land. Responsible palm oil is a scam for the consumer, an empty message.
Does responsibly sourced palm oil exist?
On paper, palm oil has some real ecological assets with a much higher yield per hectare than other oils (fortunately, imagine the extent of the damage otherwise…). Other initiatives have been launched, like the Palm Oil Innovation Group, the RSPO has recently strengthened its criteria on greenhouse gasses and human rights. But all of this is in vain: the idea of responsibly sourced palm oil is, in itself, doomed to failure.
It has, admittedly, been sustainable in the past: when the palm oil was produced and consumed locally in Africa. The crux of the problem with palm oil is its global overconsumption. No certification, no green logo can negate the obliteration of the biodiversity in its areas of cultivation, compensate for the consequences of an ultra-intensive industrial monoculture when international demand is so concentrated on a single product. Our industries – food, cosmetics, biofuel – and their common obsession with palm oil is the key. This is where we, as consumers, have the real power – in avoiding palm oil as much as possible in our daily lives.
As far as the food industry is concerned, this is pretty simple: scrap your industrial ready meals, cakes and snacks and you could avoid 90% of the palm oil you’d usually be consuming! You’ll also avoid its saturated fatty acids harmful to our cardiovascular health, cholesterol or diabetes. Often, these are trans-fatty acids, and are therefore carcinogenic, as palm oil is usually hydrogenated. Be careful, manufacturers are competing for ideas to stay under the radar: stearin, palm olein… Perhaps it says vegetable oil or vegetable fat without specification on your pack of crisps? You can safely assume they’re referring to palm oil.
When it comes to cosmetics, it’s a little more complicated: if 24% of global palm-oil production is used for cosmetics, you’ll almost never see its INCI (International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients) name Elaeis Guineensis Oil. It’s almost everywhere, yes, but hidden behind hundreds of complex names: keep an eye out for the prefixes lauryl-, stear-, palm-, cetear-, dodec-, myr(ist)- on your shower gels, shampoos, mascaras, moisturisers, foundations…
It’s important to note that it has its advantages: hydrating and nourishing when pure, inexpensive and easy to preserve, it fills bottles and stabilizes textures cheaply. Sounds like an ideal component? Not for us. At oOlution we’ve made a different choice: relying on the immense variety of plant-based oils available to us. We rely on high-quality plant-based oils in each and every one of our products, saving a huge quantity of palm oil and meaning we can kiss goodbye to the vast economies of scale which are destroying our forests. We look after your skin without contributing to the colossal environmental and social pressures associated with the harvesting of palm oil. And it’s one of our strengths! 3 years of research and development have given forth to the world’s first skincare brand guaranteed to have no palm-oil derived ingredient, esterified or hydrogenated. None. We’ve checked every single one of our ingredients to ensure that not a single drop of palm oil has been used in its production.
As consumers, we have the choice of whether or not we support the detrimental palm oil industry. It’s not easy: avoiding labeled palm oil-containing products is only half of it, avoiding palm oil altogether is a whole other ball game. Palm oil is everywhere, it’s even weaseled its way into our paracetamol tablets. And it isn’t slowing down: the financial stakes and international commercial pressures associated are staggering. Some palm oil derivatives are even exempt from tax for ecological reasons – used widely in the production of biofuels. Ironic, isn’t it? But NGOs are continuing to shake things up, let’s help them out! By rejecting products containing palm oil as far as possible, calling out manufacturers and traders online and informing our friends, we can make a change.
This post is also available in french.