Is Sustainable Palm Oil Greenwashing or Groundbreaking?!

Preface: I have not created this article to tell you whether or not sustainable palm oil is greenwashing or ground breaking. Instead, I have taken the time to conduct a ton of research and find the necessary resources for people to make their own well informed opinion on this controversial topic. I do not believe that there is a right or wrong answer. 

Palm Oil is a huge topic in the sustainable community because it is said to be the number one contributor to deforestation and the destruction of biodiversity in Indonesia and other countries in Southeast Asia, South and Central America, as well as South and Southwest Africa. This has resulted in the killing and endangering of Pandas, Orangutans, and so many other animals that are native to so many countries. Not to mention the low wages, child and forced labor, and horrible working conditions that these companies force the natives to endure so they can keep their jobs. 

When I started conducting research for this article, I began to realize how little I knew about this topic. In the past, I have read tons of articles on how palm oil was destroying our planet- but nothing about why it was used and how it became so mainstream in the US and Europe. As a result- I have decided to explore the ins and outs of the palm oil industry in the hopes that more people can become well informed on the topic, instead of relying on fear mongering news articles to get their information. 

What is Palm Oil?

Before exploring more of the issues with the palm oil industry- I think it’s important to fully understand what palm oil is, where it comes from, how it’s farmed, and its impact on the environment. Palm oil is derived from the fruit of a palm tree. Palm oil is extracted from the pulp of the fruit and is the only edible part of the plant. These palm trees farms can be found across West Africa, Central and South America, New Guinea, along with Indonesia, Malaysia, and other countries in Southeast Asia. Palm oil has been used in cooking for centuries. However it became more well known during the 1990s and early 2000s because it was trans fat free, safe, healthy, and cheap. As a result, palm oil started being incorporated into EVERYTHING from snack treats to shampoo and cosmetics. Palm oil has multiple names like Palm Oil Kernel, Palmitate, Palmate, Hydrated Palm Glycerides Hexadecanoic, and Palmitic Acid. The Below I have included a list of popular ingredients from The Orangutan Organization in Australia that are most likely to have palm oil in them: 

Vegetable oil (if product contains saturated fats, it's most likely palm oil!!)

Anything containing “stearate, stearyl” 

Anything containing the words “cetyl, cetearyl” 

Sodium Lauryl Sulphate (SLS) 

Sodium Laureth Sulphate 

Sodium Dodecyl Sulphate 

(SDS or NaDS) Sodium 

Calcium Stearoyl Lactylate Steareth -2

Steareth -20 Emulsifier 422, 430-36, 465-67, 470-8, 481-483 

How is it farmed?

The palm oil trees are grown extensively in the rainforests of West and Central Africa, as well as Malaysia and Indonesia. The palm trees bear a single stem about 20 meters tall. At the top there are tons of tiny flowers on the short branches that develop into large oval fruits. When ripe, the fruits are black with a red base and a single oily seed known as the kernel. When it comes to commercial oil products, the outer fleshy portion of the fruit is steamed to destroy the lipolytic enzymes and then pressed to create palm oil. 

However, many environmentalists argue that farming this oil is extremely bad for the planet because of the practice of burning to clear the land in order to create more farms. This has resulted in destroying the wildlife and biodiversity that have helped to ensure that the rainforests thrive for thousands of years to come. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like these farmers are going away anytime soon. According to the WRI organization, “researchers predict that smallholders will double their products capacity over the next decade, managing a 60 percent share of Indonesia's total palm oil plantations area by 2030”. The demand and backlash of the environmental activists has forced many companies to look into more sustainable ways to cultivate this amazing product. 

What is Sustainable Palm Oil?

To help keep up with the demand and help the planet- organizations like the Round-table for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) and Indonesia Sustainable Palm Oil (ISPO) are working hard to create more sustainable farms. The RSPO was founded in 2004, to help bring various players in the palm oil sector to a common discussion table to help develop and implement standards for sustainable palm oil. Their stockholders included plantation companies, processors and traders, consumer goods manufacturers, and civil society groups from countries that produce and use palm oil. The RSPO created a certification system that would enforce various policies to help eliminate the deforestation of rainforests, exploitation of animals and the biodiversity, and limit the child labor and unfair wages of their workers.

According to an article in Eco-Business from 2017, several consumer goods firms have made public commitments to sourcing sustainable palm oil. By 2019 Unilever, the world’s largest palm oil buyer, wanted 100% of its palm oil from certified sources. P&G had committed to a deforestation-free supply chain by 2020 without explicit reference to RSPO certification. And Colgate-Palmolive planned to purchase 100% certified palm oil and palm kernel oil by the end of 2017. They also went on to explain how most food manufacturers wanted to commit to buy only sustainable palm oil. However in 2015, only three companies used 100% RSPO’s certified sustainable palm oil; Italian confectioner Ferrero, Australian biscuit maker Arnott’s, and French food manufacturer Danone. 

Is Sustainable Palm Oil Actually Sustainable?! 

According to World Resources Institute, researchers from Wageningen University have estimated that the upfront cost of independent smallholders to create sustainable palm oil farms, including all necessary documents, training, and adults, could range from 16 to 39 percent of farmers’ annual incomes. Not to mention that the annual cost of certification can reach up to 12 percent of the farmers annual incomes. Due to the high costs, many of the independent smallholders that want to practice sustainable farming aren’t able to pay their farmers fair wages whilst also keeping up with the demand for palm oil. Many have worked with NGOs and/or the private sector; but even with the help, it looks like the sustainable practices aren’t likely to last. The RSPO’s 2017 Impact Report showed a 38 percent decrease of certified independent smallholders in Indonesia compared to the previous year, largely due to not renewing their licenses. 

Unfortunately, this has resulted in some bad press for the RSPO. The Eco-Business article goes onto explain how, despite RSPO’s efforts to certify sustainable palm oil; green groups and investors have routinely criticized the certification for failing to provide a credible assurance that it is truly sustainable. Not to mention the auditors that have verified companies compliance to RSPO standards have been accused of malpractice and corruption. This has resulted in many activists criticizing the members of the organizations for their lack of effectiveness in resolving these complaints made against their members. However, this doesn’t mean that sustainable palm oil is dead.

Very similar to biodegradable packaging and other zero waste concepts, nothing is ever a hundred percent perfect. According to many sources- it looks like palm oil is the most productive oil crop out of any of the other ones around because it produces at least 6 times more oil per hectare than its closest rivals, rapeseed and soy. However, ensuring new oil palm plantations are located in non-forest areas is key. Despite the US and European countries working hard to put a ton of pressure on the industry to change- it looks like the bigger importers of palm oil like India and China aren’t on board with the sustainability agenda. According to a 2018 article in Medium Corp, the costs of switching to more sustainable practices isn’t worth it when plenty of other countries would be willing to buy cheap unsustainable palm oil. Instead of getting rid of palm oil altogether, some believe that it’s important that we encourage change by engaging with the industry and investing in sustainable production.

Whether you believe that sustainable palm oil is greenwashing or groundbreaking, I hope you have a clearer understanding of the complexity in the palm oil industry. Nothing is ever as black and white as we would like it to be. Below, I have attached a few additional articles on the palm oil industry. This includes an article from the INews discussing how the Malaysian government is accusing Europe for bullying poorer regions by banning the product, which has been blamed for widespread deforestation. 

Additional Articles: