You've most likely already heard of palm oil and have been told two things: palm oil is decimating natural habitats around the world and you should boycott it as much as you can. We absolutely agree with the first point, but we're actually going to be a bit controversial regarding the second point and offer an alternative perspective.
Instead of boycotting palm oil altogether, yield the power of your consumer dollar by supporting sustainably farmed sources of palm oil.
We know this is a heavy statement and one that people might not agree with, but bear with us and we'll show you how we arrived at this viewpoint.
First things first: why is palm oil so bad?
To keep things simple, the increased demand for palm oil (mostly driven by the US market moving away from trans fats) has led to one of the world’s leading causes of rainforest destruction. Because we couldn't have said it any better, here's a snippet from an EcoWatch article that we feel does a great job of summarizing the issue.
Unchecked expansion [of palm oil production] has pushed palm oil plantations into the heart of some of the world’s most culturally and biologically diverse ecosystems and palm oil is among the biggest threats driving iconic wildlife species like the Sumatran orangutan to the brink of extinction in Indonesia. This large-scale destruction of rainforests and carbon-rich peatland landscapes is releasing globally significant quantities of carbon pollution into the atmosphere, making palm oil a major global driver of human induced climate change.
What products contain palm oil?
Palm oil is the most widely used vegetable oil in the world and you'll find it in roughly half of the items you use on a daily basis. Here's a list of items put together by the WWF that often contain palm oil.
Lipstick: it holds color well, doesn’t melt at high temperatures, and has a smooth application and virtually no taste.
Frozen and fresh pizza dough: stops it from sticking together and enhances texture
Up to 20% of the weight of a pack of instant noodles: it's used to pre-cook the noodles so that all you have to do is add hot water.
Conditioning agent: helps restore the natural oils of the hair that are stripped away by most shampoos.
Ice cream: makes it smooth and creamy.
It's refined to create soaps, washing powder and other cleaning products.
Margarine: it's solid at room temperature and is free of trans fats.
Chocolate: helps create a smooth and shiny appearance and keeps it from melting.
Baked goods: gives them a creamy taste and texture since it's semi-solid at room temperature.
Palm oil is now widely used to make bread because it is solid at room temperature, easy to bake with and inexpensive.
How do you identify if a product has palm oil in it?
To further confuse matters, when you're looking at labels to see if your favorite products contain palm oil, it might be a little tricky. Palm oil labeling is not always clear and it's often listed under other names, so even if you're trying to find it there's a really good chance you'll overlook it. Here's a list of palm oil aliases you should keep an eye out for:
Vegetable Oil or Vegetable Fat
Palm Kernel, Palm Kernel Oil, or Palm Fruit Oil
Palmate, Palmitate, or Palmolein
Stearate or Stearic Acid
Palmitoyl Oxostearamide or Palmitoyl Tetrapeptide-3
Sodium Laureth Sulfate, Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, Sodium Kernelate, Sodium Palm Kernelate, or Sodium Lauryl Lactylate/Sulphate
Hyrated Palm Glycerides,
Etyl Palmitate or Octyl Palmitate
Up palm oil creek without a paddle...
To recap, palm oil is in so many things and even if you're aware of it and actively search for it, there are so many ways to disguise it as something else that you could easily miss it. So how exactly are we supposed to effectively boycott something like this?
Even if we could boycott palm oil effectively, matters aren't that simple. Palm oil itself (minus all the terrible deforestation associated with it) is actually a great source of vegetable oil, and according to the WWF “Palm oil is by far the most efficient vegetable oil to grow as it takes less land to produce than other vegetable oils.”
In other words, it could be more environmentally destructive to use products made with other oils. Even more rainforests could be destroyed to make land available to plant other, less-efficient oil crops.
Indulge us for a second and imagine a world where manufacturers acknowledged our boycotting and all switched to an alternative to palm oil. They would still need to source some type of vegetable oil, which would come from a less efficient crop that could take up even more land and lead to even more deforestation. Yes, we could avoid cooking with margarine and not eat ramen noodles, but with palm oil being such a pervasive product and in the ingredients list for half of of what we buy, we just don't think boycotting is realistic on a large scale.
Instead of boycotting, support sustainable palm oil
There are organizations out there that have started the process of adding transparency to palm oil agriculture and certifying sustainable practices. We think global certifications are key to begin educating the public about this and start progressing toward real and substantial change in the palm oil industry. As with everything, there are pros and cons to the sustainable palm oil organizations and each uses different criteria, but here are two to keep an eye out for.
Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO): a non-profit aimed at developing and implementing global standards for sustainable palm oil. "The RSPO has developed a set of environmental and social criteria which companies must comply with in order to produce Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO). When they are properly applied, these criteria can help to minimize the negative impact of palm oil cultivation on the environment and communities in palm oil-producing regions." This all sounds great, but many people think the RSPO doesn't go far enough with their criteria and they still have lots of room to improve when it comes to oversight and compliance.
Palm Oil Innovation Group (POIG): was created to strengthen the certification of sustainable palm oil "through building on RSPO standards and commitments and by both demonstrating innovation to implement RSPO existing standards as well as with additional critical issues."
We clearly still have a ways to go in monitoring and improving certifications for sustainable palm oil, but we have a good foundation and the process will only get better with additional global attention and consumer pressure.
So let's actually fix the issue of palm oil agriculture and not just transfer it to another commodity that will cause even more deforestation somewhere else in the world.
Don't just boycott palm oil, boycott unsustainable palm oil.