Is ‘Sustainable’ Palm Oil Actually Sustainable? Behind the Label


ColumnAfter years of controversy over widespread palm oil use, sustainable palm oil is being adopted by the world’s leading manufacturers, from small organic, eco brands to big time producers like Nestlé. But is it really sustainable? We go Behind the Label to find out.

Palm oil is a vegetable-based oil that derives from Africa’s palm oil tree. It’s now grown throughout Africa, Asia, South and North America. But today, the majority of commercial palm oil hails from Indonesia and Malaysia.

You’ll find palm oil in a number of processed foods from chocolates and baked goods to frozen foods. While the majority of it is used in food production, it’s also used in personal care and cosmetics, as well as in biodiesel. About 50 million tons of palm oil are produced annually, which accounts for about 30 percent of the world’s vegetable oil. And even though a number of companies are replacing palm oil, it can still be found in as many as 50 percent of household products in the U.S., Canada, England and Australia.

The Good

Palm oil is a major source of income in Indonesia and Malaysia, where about 87 percent of the world’s palm oil comes from. According to the World Wildlife Fund, palm oil “creates rural employment and is a crop smallholder farmers can grow easily, often lifting people in rural regions out of poverty. It’s crucial for the rest of the world too: companies everywhere depend on the unique properties of palm oil for their products.”

After awareness grew over palm oil’s connection to a number of issues including deforestation, habitat destruction, animal cruelty, indigenous rights abuses and climate change, “sustainable” palm oil arose as an ethical option. The RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) emerged in 2004 with a sustainable palm oil certification program. Its goal is to unite businesses that rely on palm oil with environmental and social non-government organizations. It has brought awareness to many of the issues connected with sourcing palm oil, and has helped companies to sign on to source “sustainable palm oil.” There are more than 850 members of the RSPO and two certification options for sustainably sourced palm oil. “Both approaches classify sustainable plantations as those not grown on land cleared of tropical rainforest after November 2005,” reports Vice.

As more awareness over the issues with palm oil production came to light, more and more companies began making commitments to sourcing sustainable palm oil—meaning palm oil that does not contribute to deforestation and habitat loss for both indigenous animals and cultures. The orangutan, which once thrived in Indonesia’s forests, is now the endangered poster animal for the sustainable palm oil industry as clear cutting forests for palm plantations continues to destroy the primate’s home.

In 2010, after pressure from Greenpeace and other groups, Nestlé committed to stop sourcing palm oil from producers that cause rainforest destruction. It’s just one example of dozens of major brands that have sustainable palm oil commitments. The Hershey Company, General Mills, Procter & Gamble, Mars, Unilever and IKEA, also have sustainable palm initiatives, working with the RSPO to source 100 percent sustainable palm oil.

Image courtesy of Alaffia
Image courtesy of Alaffia

Other companies have taken the commitment even further, like Alaffia, a personal care brand that sources and produces its skin and hair care products in Togo. Working with African farmers, Alaffia sources its palm fruits from small family farms, which company spokesperson Kelsey Mayer told EcoSalon must meet strict standards including small farm size, organic farming methods and no child labor. “Farmers are paid Fair Trade prices for the palm fruits,” says Mayer. Then, the palm fruits head to a Fair Trade Certified cooperative in Sokodé, where “cooperative members are paid a fair wage for their work.”

Not only is Alaffia’s model a true example of sustainability by working with small-scale farmers, but Mayer says this method also produces a higher quality product. “When palm oil is grown as an industrial plantation crop, such as in Indonesia and Malaysia on newly cleared rainforests or peat-swamp forests rather than on already degraded land or disused agricultural land, it can contribute to the endangerment of animals, such as the orangutans,” she says. “Furthermore, since our palm oil fruits are hand-picked and our oil is hand-pressed, the environmental impact is significantly lower than that harvested on plantations. Oil palms are native to West Africa (where there are no orangutans), and have been grown as part of multi-cropped sustainable small farms for centuries.”

And Mayer explains the Alaffia palm oil method produces a healthier product too: “The palm oil retains all of its natural benefits, including high vitamin levels and antioxidant properties, which it loses in the refining process.”

Dr. Bronner’s, which makes soaps and other personal care items, says that since 2006, it has shifted over 95 percent of its raw agricultural material to sources that are certified Fair Trade and organic (FTO), including Fair Trade palm oil. “We wanted to know who makes our raw materials and ensure that fair prices and wages are paid, and their production benefits the local community and environment,” the company explains on its website.


palm oil plantation worker image via Shutterstock

The Bad

Despite sustainability commitments from the world’s top palm oil using companies, a 2007 Greenpeace investigation, detailed in the report “Cooking the Climate” found that RSPO members still source palm oil from suppliers who destroy rainforest and convert peatlands into palm plantations. According to Greenpeace, one Indonesian palm refiner, Duta Palma, actually has legal rights to create palm plantations on land that’s otherwise protected by the government from the palm industry.

And while Nestlé’s commitment to RSPO and sustainable palm oil earned it accolades in 2010, just last year Greenpeace and The Rainforest Action Network say the company’s commitment actually allows deforestation. According to Food Navigator, “deforestation will continue to be allowed while members of the [Sustainable Palm Oil Manifesto] determine what forests can be developed or protected, under the High Carbon Stock (HCS) Approach.”

Greenpeace helped to develop HCS, which combines carbon and biodiversity conservation. It also supports rights for communities dependent on the palm oil industry, as well as the forests and lands where palm plantations are being introduced.

And according to Vice, it’s not just the conventional brands contributing to the palm oil issue: “Chemical companies are part of the problem because they are using ever-larger quantities of palm oil to make the “green” products demanded by consumers.”

Now, conservationists say RSPO members can do more to ensure they’re purchasing truly sustainable palm oil. Several years ago, 200 of the world’s leading scientists asked the RSPO to ban any future palm plantations that are developed on peat lands or in place of old-growth forests.

“It is vital that the RSPO add these requirements to the principles and criteria immediately to ensure that all palm oil being sold with the label ‘sustainable’ is not driving climate change and forest destruction,” the scientists wrote. But the RSPO has yet to take action on making either of these measures part of its sustainable palm oil protocol.

The Bottom Line

While companies like Alaffia and Dr. Bronner’s are redefining what the sustainable palm oil industry can look like, not all who claim to source sustainable palm oil are making as big an impact. A consumer is not always going to have the full story in front of them when making a purchase. In fact, the opposite is more likely true: consumers are often forced to take brands at their word, which is usually glossed over with a marketing sheen.

Fortunately, there are now a number of resources for the consumer who wants more information. There’s the WWF scorecard, and several smart phone apps that can help answer questions about a brand’s commitment to palm oil.

And, there are palm oil alternatives, most notably coconut oil, which is appearing in a number of products in place of palm oil.

Use your voice to let brands know that deforestation, habitat loss and unfair labor conditions aren’t acceptable. Boycott those products until brands make the shift. Companies are making major changes to their brands and product offerings when consumers demand they do so.

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Top palm oil image via Shutterstock

Jill Ettinger

Jill Ettinger is a Los Angeles-based journalist and editor focused on the global food system and how it intersects with our cultural traditions, diet preferences, health, and politics. She is the senior editor for sister websites and, and works as a research associate and editor with the Cornucopia Institute, the organic industry watchdog group. Jill has been featured in The Huffington Post, MTV, Reality Sandwich, and Eat Drink Better.