Lipstick, instant noodles and window cleaner–what do these products have in common? They all contain palm oil, like 50 percent of products on supermarket shelves. Palm oil is extracted from the fruit of the oil palm, a tree that grows about 65 feet tall. Each reddish-coloured fruit is made up of an oily, fleshy outer layer that contains palm oil and a single kernel inside, from which palm kernel oil is extracted. Oil palm is grown on farms of all kinds, ranging from smallholder farms in West Africa to large plantations in Southeast Asia.A Ubiquitous Ingredient
Many consumers are unaware of the ubiquity of palm oil in packaged goods—or the controversial nature of its production and consumption. The truth is, even the greenest shopper will find it nearly impossible to avoid products containing palm oil. The omnipresent commodity has many aliases, including vegetable oil, glycerin, sodium lauryl sulfate and stearic acid.
Palm oil is also a key ingredient in cosmetic and personal products, such as soap, lotion, shampoo, makeup and toothpaste. It creates texture and shine, and it smoothes and moisturises. It also appears in candles, cleaners, and plastic and rubber products. It is often a key ingredient in a product’s formula, with no adequate substitute.
A Leading Cause of Deforestation
So what is the hullabaloo about palm oil? The rapid expansion of its production has caused rampant deforestation. While Indonesia and Malaysia are the epicentres of production, oil palm farms have aggressively expanded in Africa and Latin America.
Unfortunately, this expansion has led to the destruction of high value forests and the draining of tropical peat lands—leading to the displacement of indigenous peoples and endangered animals like orangutans and rare tropical birds. Its negative impact on communities, biodiversity and our global climate will not be easily reversed.
A Critical Commodity
Nevertheless, palm oil is a critical commodity. It is the largest edible oil crop in the world, accounting for more than one-third of the 144 million tons of vegetable oil produced each year. In February 2007, Oil World noted that “Oil palm is entirely GMO-free and produces up to 10 times more oil per unit area than any other vegetable oil crop.” Because of the oil palm’s high productivity, palm oil is growing in importance as a key ingredient in food and other everyday products.
Palm oil production is also vital to the economies of Indonesia and Malaysia, representing 7 percent of the Indonesian GDP and 3.2 percent of the Malaysian GDP. It is widely used as a low-cost cooking and frying oil, especially in India and China, two countries that, together, import a third of the world’s palm oil. Although its saturated fat content may be viewed as a negative attribute in some markets, palm oil is a critical caloric source for millions of people. Palm oil is also high in beta carotene and—because it does not need to be hydrogenated—contains no trans-fatty acids.
Because much of the world population is dependent on palm oil for employment and nutritional sustenance, boycotting is not a realistic solution. In fact, a boycott could hurt communities that are already struggling to achieve something close to a living wage and force companies to rapidly expand production of other vegetable oils to get their products to market.
A Fruit Ripe for Improvement
So what can we do? We can begin by harnessing our purchasing power. Tell your local retailers and favourite brands that you want to purchase products containing certified sustainable palm oil.
The Rainforest Alliance supports the expansion of certified sustainable palm oil production and manufacturing as a means to reduce the negative impacts of this growing industry. Today, about 10 percent of the global palm oil market is certified sustainable. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), formed in 2004 to promote the growth of sustainable oil palm products, accounts for the majority of certified sustainable palm oil production.
The Rainforest Alliance also offers its own rigorous certification for oil palm farms, using the criteria of the Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN) standard. Rainforest Alliance certification is especially strong in key impact areas of palm oil production, such as the protection of wildlife, forests and other ecosystems. And while both RSPO and the Rainforest Alliance require that no deforestation has occurred on the farm since November 2005, Rainforest Alliance certification goes even further to require that growers mitigate any ecosystem destruction that occurred after November 1999 through reforestation, ecological set-asides, biological corridors and biodiversity offsets.
Third-party certification has the ability to address many of the critical environmental and social issues resulting from unsustainable activities at the farm level. When companies choose to source Rainforest Alliance Certified™ palm oil, they ensure that their brands’ products are socially, environmentally and economically responsible.
The Path to Sustainability
Making sustainability the standard in palm oil production is a massive undertaking. To achieve our goals, we need to collaborate with consumers, corporations, nonprofit organizations and governments. With the worldwide demand for palm oil expected to double by 2020, ethical purchasing alone cannot reverse the damages caused by palm oil industry growth.
Fortunately, major brands and retailers like Unilever, Marks & Spencer, Walmart, Nestle, Cargill and Johnson & Johnson have made sweeping public commitments to source certified sustainable palm oil. It is essential that consumers show their support for those companies that have taken responsibility for the impact their palm oil purchases have on our planet. Their commitments—and the pledges of companies who choose to follow suit—are vital to the protection of the world’s precious tropical ecosystems.