How to avoid unsustainable palm oil products
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How to avoid unsustainable palm oil products

The cultivation of palm oil plantations for food, bio diesel, cosmetics and other uses is a huge business, employing hundreds of thousands of workers. Around 80% of palm oil is produced in Indonesia and Malaysia, driven by multinational (chiefly Western) food and cosmetic firms.

Malaysia, the number two producer and largest exporter of palm oil, has a commitment to maintain the natural forest cover of 50% of its land. This commitment, along with the increased development of “sustainable” palm oil production (Malaysia produces 50% of the world’s RSPO-Certified Sustainable Palm Oil) has in recent years kept excessive deforestation relatively in check.

Read the PDF on the criteria for Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO) here.

In contrast, Indonesia, the largest producer, is responsible for 35% of the world’s CSPO and has experienced extreme rapid growth within the industry. Yet even signatories to the RSPO have been found to violate its guidelines, as was publicized last week by International Animal Rescue, Indonesia.

The economic advantages of palm oil are clear, but so are its social and environmental disadvantages. Plantations provide jobs, but sometimes at the expense of established indigenous communities in both Malaysia and Indonesia. Working conditions of laborers have also been called into question. Environmental issues include greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity loss and habitat destruction through deforestation. High profile endangered species such as the Sumatran Tiger, Asian rhino and orangutan have been gravely affected by the palm industry.

So how do you know if the products you are buying contain palm oil and if so, is it sustainably sourced? It’s not always easy, since CSPO is not always labelled and as we have seen, even those claiming to produce sustainably may not always be doing so. Even so, we’ve got to try. Here is a quick guide:

  • First, check the label. Again, not so easy. Palm oil products can be referred to by a multitude of names, from the fairly obvious words containing “palm” (palmate, palmitate, palmityl alcohol, etc.) to the vague (vegetable oil) to the esoteric (glyceryl stearate, sodium kernelate, elaeis guineensis). See this website for more names and clues.
  • Here is a helpful list of palm-free, certified organic or certified sustainable palm products from Ethical Consumer. Most look to be European or UK products, so they may not be available in your area. The page nonetheless contains more helpful information and links to other related articles.
  • Palmoilaction.org.au also has a shopping guide aimed at those in Australia and New Zealand.
  • Major corporations driving Asia’s palm oil industry include Burger King, Cargill, Nestle, Kraft, Procter & Gamble, ADM and Unilever.
  • Deforestation in Indonesia is not limited to palm oil plantations. The paper and tropical hardwoods industries are also guilty. Non-palm products include tropical plywood, rayon and hardwoods like teak, sandalwood, ebony and ironwood. Go to orangutan.com for more.
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Deforestation for palm oil growth in Indonesia, pic: Hayden (Wikimedia Commons)