BEAUTYCALYPSE

Sustainable palm oil – a myth, busted

Why certified sustainable palm oil can’t be seen as cruelty-free or sustainable anymore: facts, numbers, impact on society and environment, and links to international palm-oil-free product guides.

Adventurers who have joined this ride early, might remember my own introduction to the palm oil issues (triggered by my search for a healthy, organic shampoo). It was the day I learned that even ethical/organic certified palm oil might be a case of outrageous greenwashing.

But let me give you just the core (or gore?) facts first.

WHERE DOES PALM OIL COME FROM

Not from happy little farmers. It’s an industry.

palm-oil-use

Palm oil (raw material AND biodiesel) comes from: The largest producer Indonesia, aspiring to become the world’s leader in palm oil production. Second largest producer and largest exporter is Malaysia (5,000,000 hectares of land serve for palm oil production). Nigeria, Thailand and Colombia follow.

What about numbers? Are you ready?

I quote from the WWF Palm oil fact sheet:

Area under cultivation
12 million ha (2005)

Global production
35 million metric tonnes

Current share of global vegetable oil production
35%

Current share of global vegetable oil trade
65%

Predicted 2015 share of global vegetable oil trade
68%

That’s huge! And more impressive than that: palm oil sits in over 50% of all packaged goods – from soap to breakfast cereals, from cleaning product to your lipstick. But wait, take this in: In 2011, only 12% of palm oil produced was certified sustainable; and only half of that was purchased by manufacturers, says WWF.

On a side note: Good news (and pressure) happen though: The Norwegian Government Pension Fund Global has withdrawn their investment from unsustainable producers in 2013.

What are the main issues of palm oil manufacturing today?

(-) Deforestation AND (-) clearing/burning of tropical forest LEAD TO (-) loss of valuable rain forest AND (-) loss of land for/forced migration of indigenous tribes AND (-) loss of habitat (and often death in the fires) of endangered animals, orangutans and tigers, rhinos and elephants AND (-) tremendous loss in biodiversity AND (-) soil erosion

Obviously, clearing and burning (add mills and refineries) LEADS TO (-) greenhouse gas emissions

(-) Use of harsh pesticides

(+) More employment, improved infrstructure/wealth LEADS TO (+) social initiatives and support of rural development BUT ALSO TO (-) employment of illegal immigrants AND (-) social conflicts due to deforestation

This is a horrible picture.

A DISAPPOINTMENT TO INDUSTRY AND CONSUMERS ALIKE

“But wait, there is such a thing as a “green” palm oil, right?”

Born in 2004 and active since 2008, the RSPO – the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil – is the industry’s main supervisory body for, well, sustainable palm oil. Side note: Sadly, China and India do not care for “green palm oil” at all yet.

But while a formal body has been created, its criteria for sustainabilty are too weak. NGOs and activists claim for years now – with growing concern from engaged consumers – that even palm oil produced through deforestation and pesticide use is certified sustainable.

And after the RSPO has reviewed its certification standards earlier this year, rejecting all improvement suggestions, even their supporter WWF sums up today’ situation with these exact words:

However, 
because 
the
 review 
failed 
to
 accept
 strong,
 tough 
and
 clear 
performance
 standards
 within 
the 
P&Cs 
on 
issues 
like
 GHGs
 and
 pesticides, 
it
 is,
 unfortunately, 
no 
longer 
possible 
for
 producers 
or
 users
 of
 palm
oil 
to 
ensure
 that
 they 
are
 acting
 responsibly
 simply
 by
 producing 
or
 using 
Certified
 Sustainable
 Palm
 Oil
 (CSPO).

 

(Source: WWF statement – link opens the PDF document.)

Today there’s no guarantee for cruelty-free or sustainable palm oil.

WHAT NOW?

I’ve started to do this before and I’ll stick to it now: No more palm oil. Totally, completely. There are palm-oil-free alternatives to a lot of products, food or beauty or household items or fuel.

palmoil-checklist-in-use

Palm-oil free shopping guide by Umweltcheck, in use

I’ve put together a few useful resources that help you find palm-oil-free products, food and non-food:

Australia: Orangutans.com.ua ‘Palm oil free alternatives’ 

USA: One Green Planet ‘Vegan Products and Palm Oil’

UK: Ethical Consumer ‘Palm Oil Free list’

France: Encyclo-Ecolo ‘Produits sans huile de palme’ + a blog and a journey (sympa!) Vivre sans huile de palme

Germany: Umweltblick ‘Produkte ohne Palmöl’ They also offer a comprehensive list of palm-oil based ingredients/derivatives (to help identify the enemy when doing groceries) which can be downloaded here (German version you can see them in use above). Word of wisdom: some palm oil derived ingredients are really tricky to hunt down like with Vitamine A Palmitate or a nameless “Vegetable Oil” which can or can not be derived from palm oil.

WHAT WILL MANUFACTURERS DO?

Let’s recall: 35 million metric tonnes of palm oil are produced per year, 12% are certified with an organisation that fails to promote real sustainability. There are a lot of food corporations whose supply chain and image are now negatively affected.

Just think Unilever (they alone order 3% of the world’s palm oil), Cadbury’s, Tesco, Nestlé, Kellog’s, Kraft, Mars, P&G, Ferrero… So many popular products from turned-meme Nutella to yummy Dunkin Donuts are now, according to the WWF, not 100% safe even if they were made with 100% certified palm oil. And they can’t qualify as vegan either.

So, how will manufacturing companies react to the fact that the ‘green palm oil’ they were glad to accept turns out to be rather greenwashed palm oil? And if they go for another vegetable oil, will the outcome be just as predictable? Can they use a higher variety of oils? Can biodiversity survive in the globalised world? And can we all consume a bit less? The questions never end.

Spring 2016 Update: please read my Palm Oil Q&As with more detailed info featuring info on certified organic palm oil.

I have now even more questions to discuss, for example re certified and organic palm oil; and what about independent certified-organic farms? Meanwhile, you could find WWF’s 2013 Palm Oil Buyers Scorecard an interesting read.

19 replies »

    • thank you, but the link you provide is actually the one that works 🙂 I’ll be updating this very article in the course of the next days, so will fix that too.

      WWF is one of the RSPO members, of course they endorse it; but they’re fighting for stricter regulations, and this is what their statement is about – if stricter regulations aren’t accepted, “sustainable PO” becomes a blurry sad thing. and stricter regulations were not accepted. so that’s the exact, sad point.

      • I handmake palm oil free herbal cosmetics. I have spent the last 8 or so yrs working on my recipes & doing my own haphazard research. I am Tania Bryson at dreamthymeherbal@gmail.com I want my products to be certified as palm oil free & am forever spreading the news about palm oil via facebook. Please contact me as I’m SO keen to educate the masses! Thanks x

        • Hi Tania, thanks for finding me and thumbs up for your PO herbal treasures. Will email you as soon as I can 🙂

  1. So sadly, the new Nutella version by Oxfam I found in Australia’s supermarkets claiming to use ‘sustainable palm oil’ is no longer an option…

    • this is the worst backdrop of all: unilever and co are long banned from my household, and I dislike nutella for being 70% fat and sugar (easy to verify with codecheck and similar), but this news actually means that organic products aren’t all safe. that bugs me. shampoo, shower gel, dishwashing liquid – I see myself writing to the companies as a customer and asking what they think they’ll do.
      replacing isn’t an option; man will destroy anything sought-after :/ I think variety is key. and less consumerism. but well…

    • Hi ~ Your article is fantastic, however, I’ve been an organic/ BD farmer & I think it’s important not to confuse the RSPO who use the term ‘certified sustainable’ with ‘certified organic.’ These are two very different things. Even if a product is labelled ‘organic’ doesn’t necessarily mean it’s ok. Only ‘certified organic’ can be trusted. Please do some research on these certifying bodies to see for yourself & support farmers who are doing the right thing. Your dollars speak volumes.

      • thank you so much for your comment! it’s interesting that not even organic brands mentioned this point (RSPO vs certified organic) when I asked what oil they used. they only said they bought from “small farmers”, a fact I cannot prove from here, right? and I love supporting indep. farmers and suppliers, I really do.
        and then of course, there are suppliers of PO-derived ingredients.
        so in the end, for the consumer, it’s a mess. that’s why I’m very happy you commented and I would highly appreciate suggestions from you as an insider.
        what certif.bodies would you recommend looking at particularly for PO farming issues?