The Devastating Truth about Palm Oil
Have you heard of palm oil? It's everywhere. In our foods and products, in everything from chocolate, mayonnaise, pizza, ice cream, instant noodles, soap, shampoo, candles and lipstick. We never think twice about it, and yet it’s one of the most ubiquitous ingredients on earth.
Almost 50% of all packaged products found in supermarkets contain palm oil. Some companies source sustainable palm oil, but so many others - including many global household brands - don't.
People have been petitioning against the dangers of palm oil for years - especially after the deaths of endangered species such as orang-utans, rhinos and elephants came to light - but too many of us still don't understand the detrimental issues involved with this seemingly innocent vegetable oil.
Note: palm oil is not the same as coconut oil.
What's palm oil?
It's a vegetable oil made from the fruit of the Oil Palm tree, which grows mostly in the rainforests of Southeast Asia, the Pacific and Africa. Palm oil is in a scary amount of food, cleaning, beauty and health products.
Because palm oil is so versatile, it’s become incredibly widely used. It’s highly stable at high temperatures, meaning it is resistant to oxiation and so can give products a longer shelf life. It helps give texture and crunch to fried products, and its colourless, odourless properties keep food products intact.
In Asia and Africa especially, palm oil is widely used as a cooking oil - as common as olive oil or sunflower oil in the west.
Recently, palm oil has become a biofuel (the 'greener' alternative to petrol).
Sneaky, sneaky companies
You might be thinking: "I definitely don't use that stuff, I would've realised." The difficult thing is that palm oil isn't clearly labelled on the majority of products it’s in, even in the UK, which has strict regulations. These are some words used on products which actually mean 'palm oil':
Vegetable Oil, Vegetable Fat, Glyceryl, Stearate, Stearic Acid, Palm Kernel, Palm Kernel Oil, Palm Fruit Oil, Palmate, Palmitate, Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, Sodium Kernelate, Sodium Palm Kernelate, Sodium Lauryl Lactylate/Sulphate, Palmolein, Elaeis Guineensis, Palmitic Acid, Palm Stearine, Palmitoyl Oxostearamide, Palmitoyl Tetrapeptide-3, Sodium Laureth Sulfate, Hyrated Palm Glycerides, Etyl Palmitate, Octyl Palmitate, Palmityl Alcohol
You've seen some of those terms before, right? Every single one of those terms means palm oil.
Why's palm oil bad?
Long story short: it’s killing the planet - and it’s killing us. Palm oil itself isn't bad, but irresponsible production of it is. As companies struggle to keep up with global consumer demand, they get keener to cut corners, and unfortunately, stop caring about who and what they hurt along the way.
Developing countries are able to make good, reliable money from an easily grown resource like palm oil. Why shouldn't they plant oil palms? But the problem lies in the area the trees thrive in - the wild tropical forests of Southeast Asia and Africa, full of millions of plant species, trees, and wildlife.
Ancient forests are getting burnt down and destroyed to make way for massive palm oil plantations. Wild animals are killed from loss of habitat, with countless plants becoming endangered too. For the sake of meeting demand, and for the sake of money.
Money is replaceable. Ancient world species are not.
Irresponsible and unsustainable palm oil production is killing off indigenous peoples, killing off some of the world’s most biodiverse forests, and killing off already endagered wildlife. Carbon-rich peat soils continue to emit greenhouse gases, contributing to climate change. The exploitation of workers and child labour continues. At what cost can this continue?
Chilling words: Global Warming
The contribution to climate change that palm oil production continues to cause is no longer something we can ignore.
Trees absorb carbon dioxide and breathe out oxygen. As trees are removed and land cleared of life, toxic levels of greenhouse gases explode into the atmosphere like a carbon dioxide bomb. Air pollution fills the area, the cities, and indigenous people also have to be rehoused. This affects us all. If we don't stop the path that global warming is on, then in 20 years, we could be living in a very different, very bleak, and very scary world.
The very process of creating a palm oil plantation commits atrocious human and animal rights abuse. The fact is, most of us either aren’t aware of the issues, or rather are detached from issues, since the idea of deforestation seems very far removed from the cities and towns we spend most of our lives in.
Blood money, no Hitman
Palm oil is a serious money-maker for global corporations. It's in almost everything. The UK are starting to crack down on sustainable sourcing, but multinational companies are still abusing their powers for the sake of money.
Indonesia and Malaysia produce around 85% of the world's palm oil, though the Philippines recently announced an 8 million hectare palm oil expansion. Yes — 8 million hectare. That's equal to 8 million football stadiums.
As richer countries demand more palm oil, local farms in developing countries are forced to plant more oil palms to keep up.
What can I do?
This news feels distressing, and the fact that it has been ongoing for so long is almost demoralising. Luckily, there's one immediate way that you can start making a change: by looking at your daily consumption habits.
We're all struggling with bills, grief, love lives, jobs. But when the world we live in is in jeopardy, and it's just as important. What can we do in everyday life that could help? You could try and remove all palm oil from daily life, though it'd be impossible. It's literally everywhere. Unless we start a commune in Timbuktu and live off chargrilled insects, we have to live with it.
Here's are some solutions:
1. Limit your consumption of palm oil products whenever possible.
Be conscious. Read product labels. Bake cakes instead of eating packaged products. Switch junk food for a healthier alternative. Use natural, organic cosmetics, like Virginutty. This is why we exist.
2. Try to buy products only from companies that use sustainable palm oil.
The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) is an assocation of producers, growers and consumers on a mission to make all palm oil sustainable. Look for the RSPO or Green Palm sticker on the products you purchase whenever you shop.
WWF also publishes a palm oil 'scorecard' which monitors company efforts to use sustainable palm oil.
3. Question the production chain whenever you can.
By becoming an inquisitive consumer, your questioning will create the need for companies to provide answers. If we begin caring, they’ll begin caring.
Scary stuff, we know. But it's time that we take accountability for the change we can achieve as individuals, so that we — and the generations after us — can continue to protect and appreciate our beautiful planet.
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Virginutty's Conscious Consumer series aims to help make our customers and consumers more conscious about the products they buy and use. We encourage you to ask questions, consume consciously, and respect the earth.