Palm Oil: Why It's Harmful and How to Avoid It

Updated: Mar 16



Palm oil and it's potential problems has been in the news a lot recently, brought particularly into the public eye through Iceland's removal of all own label products containing palm oil and their controversial ad which was banned.


Palm oil is ubiquitous in many of our supermarket products including shampoo, food and laundry detergent. But what's so bad about it? Below we explore the social and environmental costs of the ingredient which invades so many of our household products.


The Social Cost of Palm Oil

There are a few problematic social impacts of palm oil, especially that which is not sustainably sourced. Some palm oil plantations exploit workers, some cases including child labor, modern day slavery and rape allegations. Across plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia, former workers interviewed by American company The Associated Press had complaints about their treatment, with some saying they were cheated, threatened, held against their will or forced to work off unsurmountable debts. Others said they were regularly harassed by authorities, swept up in raids and detained in government facilities.


Another issue with palm oil is the land used to produce it, often having negative impacts on rural communities and indigenous people. One study found many cases of human rights abuse by plantation companies, especially during land acquisition and plantation development. Other studies indicate that most conflicts between plantation developers and communities occur because of lack of recognition of customary rights, breached agreements, and disregard for the environment.


The Environmental Cost of Palm Oil

As a leading cause of global deforestation and biodiversity loss, palm oil can have some vastly negative impacts on our environment. In order to grow the oil palm plant, huge areas are cleared and replaced with uniform lines of the oil palm. This is problematic for the following reasons:

  • Palm oil is the driving force behind the destruction of tropical peatlands. These peatlands are one of the largest natural carbon stores meaning that when they are destroyed, it does not only stop them from sequestering more carbon from the atmosphere, it releases huge amounts of carbon into the environment.

  • Rainforests and peatlands which are deforested are home to a huge amounts of biodiversity from the trees and soil to the animals and birds. The destruction of these species' homes has resulted in endangering animals such as the orangutang. Recent studies have found that oil palm ranks poorly in terms of how many species they can support.

  • The act of deforestation essentially sets off a carbon 'bomb'. After removing valuable trees the land is burned, realising all the carbon stored in the rainforest trees and plants into the atmosphere. The oil palms that replace these trees will not sequester as much carbon as the biodiverse rainforest.

  • Sometimes huge areas will be cleared for palm oil plantations but will eventually be left bare due to conflicts with local communities or ill-management resulting in stagnation or bankruptcy. In this case, carbon-sequestering rainforests have been cleared and not even replaced by another plant, even if it is palm oil.


Should You Avoid Products Containing Palm Oil?

Whilst these damaging social and environmental situations arise because of unsustainably sourced palm oil, the palm oil industry is also hugely responsible for decreasing poverty and is an important driver of economic development in countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia. This is why it is important not to simply avoid all products containing palm oil.


Some products containing palm oil are certified by The Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). The RSPO have a set of environmental and social criteria to label a company Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO). However, many people believe this is simply a case of greenwashing. A report by the Environmental Investigation Agency uncovers fraudulent auditing of oil palm plantations, primary forests cleared to make way for plantations, and community rights being violated.


So where does that leave consumers? Whilst the RSPO's certification may be criticised it is currently the only certification on mass-market products. This is why we would still recommend choosing products with the CSPO label over those without. However, we would strongly recommend looking into brands of your most common household products and opting for those with the most transparent palm-oil policies. For example, Traidcraft's products use FairPalm which is grown by smallholder farmers in West Africa – where oil palm plants are indigenous, grow naturally alongside other crops, and where the farming community often possess a few palm trees as part of their multi cropping small holder farming. Cutting back on the amount of products you use that contain palm oil will also help.


Moreover, Ecosia is a company who raise money through people using their internet search ad-on and are using money generated from internet searches to reforest former palm oil plantations in Sumatra. On the island of Borneo Ecosia is helping to create alternative income solutions to palm oil.

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