Palm oil is a staple commodity used all over the world and is used in around 50% of all consumer goods. Palm is the oil of choice because of its versatility, low cost, and convenience for manufacturers, however, it comes at a huge cost to the world’s forests and wildlife habitat.
Palms grow best in warm, tropical climates and Indonesia and Malaysia are currently the main regions for palm oil production but it is increasingly grown in other Asian countries North America and South America - coinciding with the increasing demand for the versatile oil. It possible that the equivalent of 300 football fields of rainforest is cleared every hour for the planting of palms.
To produce palm oil, the palm fruit is collected from the trees, which live on average, live almost 30 years. Once the trees grow too high, it becomes difficult to reach the fruit, and they are cut down to make room for new trees.
It's used in natural soap, food manufacture, as cooking oil, as a base oil in the production of cosmetics, bar soap, candles, chocolate and detergents. It's also used in industry, and in the production of biofuels.
Palm oil isn't always listed as such on ingredients lists, but is likely to come under the umbrella label “vegetable oil,” and it's not always required to specify which oils have been used. It can be listed as any of the following.
Palm oil has become the world’s most traded vegetable oil, and the clearing of land for palm oil plantations has led to the deforestation of thousands of acres of forest.
Controversially, these forests have been home to orangutans, and deforestation for palm oil has lead to the destruction of important habitat for these very special animals.
According to some research, the quest for palm oil has led to the death of around 100,000 orangutans. The Iceland supermarket Christmas advert
in 2019 highlighted the plight of the orangutans V deforestation due to palm oil production but the advert was subsequently banned for being politically motivated.
Perhaps they were right to ban the advert. While it raised this important issue, it fails to present the alternative scenario, if palm oil is not used, which could be even more devastating for the environment.
Because of the negative issues around palm oil production, companies are keen to replace palm kernel oil-based ingredients. Alternatives such as coconut oil and babassu oil have similar properties to palm kernel oil and are being hailed as the next opportunity. But are they any better the environment?
Palm oil is the global favourite because it is fast-growing and has high yields. Per hectare, it produces more oil than comparable plant alternatives. So is palm oil the best option after all and is it fair to discredit companies who use sustainable palm oil in their products?
A report by 'ethical consumer' on coconut
and palm oil
gives a clear picture of which brands to avoid. While almost all soap brands use palm oil, those in the 'best category' are able to demonstrate clear traceability and certification of origin. SoapYard soap makers only use palm oil from certified sources.
WWF believes that companies should be the drivers of change and should help develop solutions to encourage sustainably sourced palm oil particularly from smallholders, rather than forcing demand to shift to other products.
Certification can play a vital role in ending irresponsible palm oil production. Joining the RSPO and committing to purchasing responsible palm oil is an important first step for all companies who use palm oil in their manufacturing. The RSPO Standard represents an essential tool that can help companies achieve their commitments to palm oil that is free of deforestation, expansion on peat, exploitation and the use of fire. The WWF has a rating system for brands that shows if they are using sustainable palm oil
Read more from WWF