Palm the palm oil

Deb and I are very excited to announce that consumewithcare.org is evolving! We’ve decided to broaden our focus to include all aspects of ethical living. We want to empower and inspire our readers to make choices when they shop that are kind to animals, our fellow humans and our precious planet.

One of the many issues I’ve been super keen to learn more about is palm oil. I know that it’s in lots of the stuff we all buy (it is now an ingredient in one out of every ten supermarket products including food, cosmetics, cleaning and bath products) and I know that’s it’s basically no good but I wanted to know more. I decided to do some research and this is what I found:

Why is Palm Oil a Problem?

Palm oil production is one of the leading causes of rainforest destruction around the globe. Nearly 90% percent of palm oil is grown in Indonesia and Malaysia on land which was once rainforest. Indonesia’s rainforests are one of earth’s most biologically and culturally rich landscapes, containing 10% of the world’s known plants, 12% of mammals and 17% of all known bird species. According to the UN’s Environment Program 98% of Indonesia’s forest may be destroyed by 2022.

The rainforests of Borneo and Sumatra are the last stand for one of humankind’s closest relatives, the orangutan. Orangutans face an extreme risk of extinction within our lifetime. Between 2004-08, the Sumatran orangutan population fell by 14% to 6,600, largely due to loss of habitat for palm oil expansion. The critically endangered Sumatran tiger and Sumatran rhinoceros, both with populations of only hundreds left in the wild, are also urgently threatened by palm oil expansion.

Corporate land grabbing of Indigenous and community forests for palm oil plantations is responsible for serious human rights abuses and persistent conflicts between companies and rural communities. Many industrial palm oil plantations also rely on the use of forced and child labor. In Malaysia and Indonesia, child labor has been documented and allegations of modern-day slavery on plantations across Malaysia are common.

What is Sustainable Palm Oil?

Sustainable palm oil is produced without contributing to rainforest or peatland destruction, species extinction, greenhouse gas emissions or human rights abuses. The certification of palm oil as sustainable is overseen by the Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). The problem is the RSPO is an industry-led group, not an independent body, so it is not a 100% guarantee that palm oil is from a sustainable source. Currently only 4% of palm oil is RSPO certified. It is more expensive to produce than other palm oil so many companies are still choosing the cheaper option.

What is the Solution?

The best way to avoid contributing to the deforestation and destruction caused by palm oil is to avoid it all together, but this is easier said than done. In Australia the presence of palm oil in a product does not need to be declared on the label*, and it most often appears as ‘vegetable oil’. The label must, however, declare the amount of saturated fat. So, if vegetable oil is listed as an ingredient AND the amount of saturated fat is also listed, it is pretty certain that it contains either palm kernel oil, palm oil or coconut oil (but palm oil is the most likely). Other vegetable oils are not saturated and therefore saturated fat will not be listed. Confused yet? I certainly am but unfortunately there is no simpler way to explain it.

How to avoid Palm Oil Products

There are several online guides around that list palm oil free products. Please go to www.orangutans.com.au/Orangutans-Survival-Information/Helping-you-buy-responsibly-Palm-oil-free-alternatives.aspx to find out which companies use or avoid Palm Oil and its derivatives in their products. The Auckland Zoo has also produced a guide. See http://www.aucklandzoo.co.nz/conservation/buy-palm-oil-free/palm-oil-free-shopping-guide.aspx.

A little awareness can go a long way in protecting precious habitat and species. After doing my research I certainly feel inspired to commit to avoiding palm oil in the products I buy as much as possible and I hope you do too.

It’s our planet so let’s look after it together!


* If palm oil is used in cosmetics it must be labelled, however, it is not usually labelled palm oil. It is labelled as Elaeis guineensis which is the name given to palm oil by the International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients.


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