The problem with palm oil

Earthly team

Earthly team

14 Dec, 2020

The problem with palm oil

Palm oil is an incredibly common commodity found in hundreds of products from make-up and soap, to ice-cream and chocolate. If you’ve done a supermarket shop recently, the chances are your basket has included some items that contain palm oil. In fact, palm oil is said to be an ingredient in as many as


of all supermarket products!

So what is the problem with palm oil?

Palm oil is sourced from oil palm trees, and in order to fulfil all the growing demand for palm oil, producers have increasingly needed to plant oil palm trees. This on its own doesn’t sound like a problem, however, it quickly becomes problematic when you consider that in order to create room for these oil palm plantations, many other natural, and therefore more biodiverse areas of woodland, are deforested. According to the BBC “palm oil production is said to have been responsible for about


of the world’s deforestation between 1990 and 2008”. As well as this, the industry practices draining and converting peatland forests into palm oil plantations. This is particularly damaging to climate change mitigation efforts since these peatland forests act as ‘carbon sinks’ that store more carbon, per unit area, than

any other ecosystem in the world


Another problem with the worldwide use of palm oil is that it is not produced in the same widespread manner. The plant originates in west Africa, but these days the main growers and producers of palm oil plantations are in Indonesia and Malaysia. This means that in order for the palm oil to reach us on our supermarket shelves, the oil needs to be exported, thus leading to further emissions produced within the supply chain.

Palm oil is already one of the most efficient crops to produce oil. It would take anywhere between

4 – 10 times as much land area

to produce equivalent oil amounts with other oil crops such a soybean or coconut oil. Therefore we can see that we are currently working at the maximum efficiency we can – and that it is consumption rather than production that needs to change!

What can we do?

The fact that palm oil is the most efficient oil to grow and use, makes our decision makers as consumers much harder. Our first instinct then might be to look to try and avoid palm oil as much as we can. However, it’s often hard to know which products contain palm oil and labels may not actually even contain the word palm – instead they use the names of the derivatives of the oil. Some derivatives that might be used are: palm, stear, laur, glyc – if you look out for these four words you can identify

over half

of the compounds containing palm oil found in many products.

Alternatively, we should look to sustainably sourced palm oil if we are going to buy products containing it. This not only avoids the issue of hidden palm oil derivatives (because it will be clearly labelled – sustainable palm oil), but it also means we avoid the potential negative impacts of boycotting that will be discussed later.

This leads us onto looking at how palm oil can be sustainably sourced and how businesses can ensure they are working to make their products from it.

The WWF has compiled a scorecard for different companies, with an analysis of how sustainable their products are in terms of palm oil. You can see the full list here:

What can businesses do?

Businesses should first and foremost be introspective, ensuring that their own supply chain is sustainable and not contributing to deforestation through palm oil or any other avenue. But simply avoiding palm oil isn’t a viable solution – as aforementioned palm oil is by far the highest yielding crop and so switching demand to other oils such as soybean or rapeseed, can dramatically reduce the efficiency. This may even lead to higher deforestation to cater for the increasing demand for these alternative oils. As well as this, a boycott of palm oil would be majorly disruptive to the local communities who rely on palm oil for a large part of their income.

Businesses should therefore, be informed and forward thinking when making supply chain decisions. A good start for many businesses would be to join the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) and use the Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO) from suppliers. It is important that brands not only source their palm oil in a

sustainable manner

, but also that they engage with the production process; understanding the supply chain, making it transparent for consumers, and advocating for sustainable, forest protectionary practices at every stage.

Give the planet a hand

As we can see, doing the right thing for the planet isn’t always as simple as it might first appear. Palm oil is a key example of this, and both businesses and individuals should be alert to the best practices which are most beneficial in the fight against climate change. Businesses should support sustainability initiatives such as the RSPO, and subsequently individuals should support the businesses acting in the interest of the planet.