Is sustainable palm oil ~really~ sustainable?

Mounting evidence suggests sustainable palm oil might not actually be that sustainable.

It's a difficult pill to swallow considering more than half of products for sale in supermarkets contain palm oil. This one crop has lead to the decimation of rainforests and wild animal populations. Many brands have switched to 'sustainable' palm oil to appear more eco-friendly. But there's a lot of evidence that may be just another form of greenwashing. 

Why is palm oil bad for the environment?

Oil palms are mostly grown in Indonesia and Malaysia where there's large areas of rainforest that's home to tigers, orangutang and other vulnerable species.

Palm oil companies have been destroying these rainforests to create more land to grow oil palm trees. In fact, a rainforest area the size of the UK has been destroyed in Indonesia between 1990 and 2015, according to official figures from the Indonesian government. Palm oil and paper companies are the main causes of this destruction.

In just 16 years, 100 000 Bornean orangutang have been wiped out due to human activity.

What is the RSPO?

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was formed in 2004 in attempt to make the palm oil industry more sustainable. This is said to be done through global standards and engagement of stakeholders. It's a voluntary association that consists of palm oil producers, processors, traders, manufacturers, retailers, banks, investors and some environmental groups. It is, therefore, not an independent regulator but is instead made up of stakeholders in the palm oil industry.

So, does the RSPO actually ensure sustainable palm oil?

According to environmental groups, investigative journalists and whistleblowers, there are many holes that allow unsustainable palm oil to be fed into certified sustainable palm oil supply chains. The RSPO has been accused by Friends of the Earth of "being used by the palm oil industry to greenwash corporate destruction and human rights abuses, while it continues to expand business, forest destruction and profits".

Meanwhile, indigenous populations have reported violence, exploitation, loss of access to their ancestral lands and even deaths caused by contamination by water from palm oil processing plants.

According to researchers from Purdue University, palm oil plantations with eco-friendly endorsements have lost 38% of their forest cover since 2007 while non-certified areas have lost 34% .

Why does the RSPO receive criticism?

The RSPO receives criticism from activists and environmental groups partly because of its failure to adequately audit companies or penalise them when they break the rules.

“The credibility or efficacy of the RSPO is entirely reliant on look at what's actually happening and try and enforce the standard. If we don't do it, any number of sins will just get rubber stamped and greenwashed." - Tomasz Johnson of the Environmental Investigation Agency.

The organisation also faces a common problem with industry-led sustainability initiatives: trying to get all members to agree to improving standards. Achieving sustainability may clash with companies' profit motives making them inclined not to take action.

Well, does the RSPO protect critically endangered orangutan habitat at least?

Scientists testing the effectiveness of palm oil certification against sustainability objectives have cast doubt on whether RSPO certification is achieving real improvements in the sustainability of palm oil production.

Researchers also found orangutan populations declined at similar rates between RSPO-certified and non-certified plantations between 2009 and 2014. Outbreaks of fire increased at similar rates between both. Poverty increased in villages neighbouring certified and non-certified plantations.

Other names for palm oil on ingredient lists:

  • Elaeis guineensis
  • Etyl palmitate
  • Glyceryl
  • Hydrogenated palm glycerides
  • Octyl palmitate
  • Palm kernel
  • Palm stearine
  • Palmate
  • Palmitate
  • Palmitic acid
  • Palmitoyl oxostearamide
  • Palmitoyl tetrapeptide-3
  • Palmityl alcohol
  • Palmolein
  • Sodium kernelate
  • Sodium laureth sulfate
  • Sodium lauryl lactylate/sulphate
  • Sodium lauryl sulfate
  • Sodium palm kernelate
  • Stearate
  • Stearic acid
  • Vegetable fat
  • Vegetable oil

It's easy to throw your give up on trying to avoid palm oil. Especially when the international regulating body is falling short and it's so widespread in everyday products. But luckily, many businesses are stepping up to the challenge by offer palm oil-free products - like CONCENTR8ED!

Palm oil-free products are often more expensive to produce due to the cheap nature of palm oil. But we think orangutang and rainforests are worth it. Shop our palm oil-free, plastic-free eco bars now.