by Joseph Rauch
Now that sustainable palm oil products are becoming more popular and widely available, it’s time to evaluate whether they are actually making a difference in the world.
You might have heard about palm oil: how it’s an evil source of human suffering, how it’s destroying rainforests. This unique type of vegetable oil is in everything from margarine and chocolate to shampoo and lipstick, so it’s kind of hard to avoid. The real problem, though, is not palm oil itself, but rather how we get it.
Despite the negative impact palm oil production has on the environment and local communities, the versatility of this crop makes it attractive to producers. It’s estimated that oil palm trees produce up to 10 times more oil per hectare than any other crop, making it more appealing than less cost-effective vegetable oils like coconut oil.
While the global demand for palm oil continues to skyrocket, this growth has decimated local communities and wildlife, particularly in Indonesia and Malaysia, where an estimated 85% of the world’s oil palm is grown. This booming market has led to deforestation, high levels of greenhouse emissions, and the destruction of rural communities and natural habitats.
The grave consequences of palm oil production have spurred many conservation groups and consumers into action, increasing the call for sustainable palm oil.
Most palm oil producers have used unethical practices, including burning and clearing forests, in regions such as Indonesia and Malaysia, which are often home to endangered species. The manufacturing has involved abusive labor conditions and the disruption of local communities. Palm oil is bountiful and cheap to make, so there’s little incentive for companies to rely on alternatives such as coconut oil.
According to Conservation International, more than 62 million metric tons of palm oil are produced globally on 20 million hectares of land. As the palm oil industry continues to grow, oil palm plantations are popping up across Southeast Asia, Africa and Latin America. Not only have these palm oil plantations led to the displacement of indigenous communities in these regions, they’re also threatening endangered species that depend on these habitats, such as orangutans.
As tropical forests are mowed down to make way for palm oil production, peatlands are being drained to prepare for cultivation. Because these wetlands are composed of carbon-rich soil, the draining of these peatlands leads to immense emission of greenhouse gases, contributing to climate change on a global scale.
Because of these issues, in 2001 the World Wildlife Fund [WWF] began developing the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil [RSPO]. The organization built a system that encouraged and incentivized palm oil producers and supply chains to adopt practices that were ethical but still profitable.
To become RSPO members and declare that their palm oil is certified sustainable, companies need to prove they are not destroying the environment or negatively impacting nearby residents and farmers. Typically brands’ motivations are to avoid negative PR and appeal to conscientious consumers.
Since the formal establishment of the RSPO in 2004, roughly 21% of palm oil has become RSPO-certified sustainable, according to Palm Done Right Marketing Director Monique van Wijnbergen. About a decade ago that ratio was at only 3%.
Most analysts attribute the growth to the RSPO, as well as similar organizations and standards such as Fair for Life and Rainforest Alliance. There are also nongovernmental organizations that spread awareness of the issues and paved the way for others to make progress, Wijnbergen noted, including Greenpeace and Oxfam.
With the founding of the RSPO, more and more producers are pledging to produce sustainable palm oil products. But what exactly makes the certified sustainable products more ethical and environmentally friendly than non-certified products wreaking havoc on the rainforest and indigenous communities?
To ensure producers and supply chains are consistent with the production of sustainable palm oil, the RSPO developed eight principles and criteria for producers to abide by. Here’s a brief description of those eight RSPO principles:
The standard set by these principles requires producers to take several measures to receive certification. For instance, growers and millers must commit to ethical conduct, providing information to stakeholders regarding environmental, social and legal issues. They must also prove that the land used to produce palm oil was obtained rightfully and not protested by local communities.
Put simply, these principles spur sustainable palm oil producers and supply chains to take more responsibility when it comes to the environment, employees, indigenous people, and the final product.
Certification is done through strict verification of the production process, which must meet these stringent principles. If a producer fails to meet these rules or standards, the RSPO certification can be taken away. According to the organization, supply chains that use sustainable oil products are audited to thwart overselling or combining with non-sustainable palm oil.
Although the RSPO is striving to incorporate ethics and sustainability into the palm oil supply chain, some feel that its certification standards fall short of meeting widespread demands to halt deforestation. This concern has led to the creation of The Palm Oil Innovation Group (POIG), a multi-stakeholder initiative that aims to build upon the benchmarks set by RSPO.
Building upon the RSPO’s framework, POIG has furthered the push to prevent deforestation and expansion on peatlands, promoting human and labor rights, and limiting climate change.
Dozens of brands have licensed the RSPO trademark that lets consumers know their palm oil-based products are sustainable. When you’re shopping in a store, you can look for a white palm frond symbol with “Certified Sustainable Palm Oil RSPO” printed around it.
Online there is a WWF database that lists brands and rates the sustainability of their palm oil on a scale from one to nine. Avon, for example, earned an eight out of nine score in 2018, while Campbell’s had only one out of nine in that same year. There is also a RSPO mobile app that helps users find sustainable options.
It is possible that the push for sustainability will affect the quality of products as well. Improved agricultural and manufacturing practices could, Wijnbergen said, have a direct positive effect on the quality of the palm fruit and thus the palm oil. Either way it’s a win for consumers.
The goal is 100% sustainable palm oil, Wijnbergen stated, so obviously there is much more work to be done. Nonetheless, organizations such as the RSPO have had commendable success in generating demand for sustainable palm oil products, spreading awareness about the issue and creating opportunities for struggling farmers.
The RSPO lists a few statistics that show their efforts have made a difference when it comes to sustainable palm oil:
It might take many more years, however, before there is a significant impact on deforestation.
The RSPO’s latest estimate is that there are 3.57 million hectares (a hectare is about 2.5 acres) of protected land where certified sustainable palm oil is produced. This figure sounds impressive, doesn’t it? But these areas only represent roughly 1% of forests in Indonesian palm oil plantations, according to a report by land systems scientist Kimberly Carlson.
To accelerate their progress, Carlson wrote, the RSPO will need to seek broader adoption of certification in forested areas. Nonetheless, Carlson did acknowledge that the RSPO has had a significant positive effect on the forests they have secured.
It seems like sustainable palm oil products are making a tangible difference in the consumer and labor landscape, but the industry has struggled to save a sizable section of the rainforest. Fortunately, the more consumers buy sustainable palm oil products and boycott unethical brands, the more organizations — such as the RSPO — can protect the planet.
Palm can be grown for good, bringing benefits to:
Together, we can influence change for: