Will A Palm Oil Boycott Help Protect Our Rainforests?
As you peruse the internet you will notice that banning palm oil seems to be a current trend among consumers and businesses.
Everywhere you look you see more and more products advertised as "palm-oil-free."
While I believe that people mean well, unfortunately, campaigns that call for a palm oil boycott could lead to even greater environmental and social problems.
I hope that after reading this, there will be a better understanding of the Palm Oil issue and what we can do about it.
Palm oil has been used in soap making for thousands of years.
Palm oil creates a long-lasting, great cleansing, moisturizing bar of soap with a fluffy lather.
Despite its great attributes in soap and other products, palm oil has become a highly debated topic.
Worldwide concerns regarding the effect of the growing number of palm oil plantations on the rights of indigenous peoples and the destruction of wildlife and biodiversity must be addressed.
At Chagrin Valley Soap we treasure our planet and its inhabitants. We know that although we play a very small part, we must always make choices that are ecologically and socially responsible. Our Certified Sustainable Palm Oil is grown and manufactured according to standards for sustainable practices.
Over the years we have done our research, which I share with you today. The main problem is that the demand for palm oil continues to increase.
Why Has The Demand For Palm Oil Increased?
Palm oil, the most widely used vegetable oil in the world, is not only an ingredient in the our diet, but more than half of all packaged products we consume contain palm oil. Palm oil is found in lipstick, toothpaste, soaps, detergents and even ice cream and dog food.
Although palm oil has been used for years in many industries, the demand for palm oil in the food industry has increased tremendously. According to a November 2021 article written by Pablo Robus, et al. in Bloomberg, "The World's Addiction to Palm Oil Is Only Getting Worse."
"We each consume on average 8 kilograms of palm oil every year, but most of the time, we’re not even aware that the thing we’re eating, smelling or burning contains substances that were once bunches of red fruit on an oil-palm tree. Pick up any packaged item in a supermarket and there’s about a 50 percent chance it’s got palm oil in it." (Source)
Now you may be thinking, "I absolutely check every label to be sure there is no palm oil listed." Unfortunately, according to the Orangutan Alliance, you may never see the words "palm oil" in an ingredient list since the oil and its derivatives can appear in a list under more than 200 different names.
Palm oil is one of the few vegetable oils that is naturally solid at room temperature.
Trans fats are solid vegetable fats created through the hydrogenation of liquid vegetable oils. Since the harmful effects of consuming these hydrogenated oils became well documented, palm oil is considered a healthier alternative to trans fat shortenings.
When the FDA ban of trans fats went into effect on June 18, 2018, many food manufacturers reformulated their products to use naturally solid oils like palm or coconut.
According to an article published in December 2020 by Hannah Ritchie and Max Rosner in Our World Data, although the use of palm oil in food products dominates the global demand . . .
". . . this breakdown varies from country-to-country. Some countries use much more palm oil for biofuels than others. In Germany, for example, bioenergy is the largest use, accounting for 41% (more than food at 40%). A push towards increased biofuel consumption in the transport sector has been driving this, despite it being worse for the environment than normal diesel."
The drive for more green energy to make biofuels has added a greater push for new palm plantations. Unfortunately, scientific studies are discovering that deforestation is far more damaging to our Earth’s climate than the benefits gained by switching to biofuels.
"Growing biofuel crops on a large scale requires either the conversion of agricultural land used for food crops or the destruction of forests to free up land, possibly offsetting any reduction in carbon emissions from the use of biofuels.” (Robert Mendick, The Telegraph, March 23, 2014)
The Palm Oil Controversy
New palm groves are often planted by clearing huge regions of the rainforest or draining carbon-rich peatlands without regard for the health of the indigenous people or the surrounding ecosystems.
By the way, this problem is not unique to palm oil--but more about that later!
The largest rainforests are in the Amazon River Basin (South America), the Congo River Basin (western Africa), and throughout much of Southeast Asia. Smaller rainforests are located in Central America, Madagascar, Australia, nearby islands, India, and other locations in the tropics.
Deforestation of our rainforests threatens the survival of indigenous peoples and endangered species, impacts habitat, wildlife, and biodiversity, and results in the loss of precious green space that cleans our air.
Clearing forests for palm oil production also contributes to climate change. Native forests are often cleared by burning the timber and forest undergrowth. This results in large amounts of smoke (greenhouse gases) being released into the atmosphere.
Furthermore, as land is cleared for large plantations, indigenous people are often driven from their land and source of income.
Many end up working in large business palm plantations where they have to face harsh treatment, unsafe working conditions, child labor, violation of their human rights, and insufficient pay.
Something to Think About
The palm oil industry plays a very important role in the economy of many developing countries and supports some of the world's poorest communities. Developing nations also rely on palm oil as a source of nutrition providing easy-to-obtain and much-needed calories. In addition to providing food, the palm oil industry provides many jobs and much-needed revenue.
Those of us that have had all of the advantages of living in a developed country must recognize the right of other communities to develop themselves.
The people of many developing countries are simply attempting to survive. For them, the preservation of native forests and the conservation of biological diversity is not a priority over life.
Should We Boycott Palm Oil?
A solution to the problem of producing palm oil while protecting the environment and allowing for the economic growth of poorer nations is not an easy one. There are some who support a boycott of palm oil.
It sounds like a logical idea--if we boycott palm oil the demand will decrease and new plantations will not be needed. But it is not as simple as that.
A boycott could result in closing down the industry in developing countries and with it their opportunity to raise their standard of living.
Although many believe the palm oil industry is only about big business, 30 to 40 percent of the total production of palm oil comes from small palm oil farmers.
In 2008, the Indonesian palm oil commission found that over 41 percent of total palm oil plantations were owned by small plantation holders. (A Report by World Growth 2011)
Do any of us really believe that big businesses will lose money? No, the greatest impact would be felt by the small family farmers and communities who can barely afford to feed their families. Taking opportunities such as these away from these small farming communities could be devastating.
Why Not Just Use Another Vegetable Oil?
A report released in June, 2018 by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) found that boycotting palm oil would result in "displacing, rather than halting" global biodiversity loss," as it would lead to an increase in the production of other oil crops that require far more land.
Oil palms are very productive crops, have the highest yield per hectare (1 hectare equals about 2.5 acres), and can produce up to 10 times more oil per acre than other oil crops.
Boycotting palm oil will only create a demand for another oil crop to take its place, with even greater consequences. If palm oil plantations are forced to close, owners are likely to clear more rainforests in order to plant other crops that require much more space.
The second-largest oil crop, soybeans, would need more than 10 times the amount of land to produce the same amount of oil and sunflower would need about 8 times the amount of land. The social and environmental impacts will be greatly increased.
According to the World Wildlife Federation, "Globally, palm oil supplies 40% of the world’s vegetable oil demand on just under 6% of the land used to produce all vegetable oils. To get the same amount of alternative oils like soybean, coconut, or sunflower oil you would need anything between 4 and 10 times more land, which would just shift the problem to other parts of the world and threaten other habitats, species, and communities."
Replacing controversial palm oil with other oils, such as soy or sunflower, does not solve the issue of deforestation but actually worsens it.
What Can Be Done About the "Palm Oil Problem"?
The answer is to improve growing conditions by supporting and encouraging the development of truly “sustainable” palm oil.
Improving growing practices could double palm oil production, while at the same time protecting precious rainforests and their inhabitants.
Since palm yields much more oil and requires much less land when compared to oils like soybean or sunflower, projects have begun to help countries and small farmers identify areas for palm oil development using land previously cleared for other crops.
There are also huge tracts of land deforested years ago by loggers that lay abandoned and could be used for new plantations. In this way, no new rainforest land would be cleared.
For example, over the years large tracts of rainforest in South America have been cleared via “slash and burn” with a promise to indigenous people that they would then have good farm and grazing lands.
The topsoil in the rainforest is very thin and with the trees gone there were no roots to serve as temporary water storage and no protection from the tree canopies to prevent soil runoff.
As a result, all of the soil nutrients were washed away creating areas of barren land.
Many palm plantations are now grown on these once-barren lands in regions of the Amazon and other rainforest areas that were cleared 30-40 years ago.
These palm plantations have reintroduced a new forest crop which has brought back many species of birds and other plants and animals and preserves forests surrounding the plantation. While not as diverse as the native Rainforest, it is a huge improvement over barren grasslands.
If We Build It, They Will Come
Many of us remember that iconic phrase from the movie "Field of Dreams." But I am not suggesting that we build a baseball field here, instead, I am suggesting that if we build a movement to demand that companies source their palm oil and other products sustainably, we will have the collective power to influence how companies source their materials.
If we demand Sustainable Palm Oil the growers will grow it.
A boycott will NOT force large Palm Oil Companies to go out of business. As global demand for palm oil continues to surge, palm oil is not going away.
The fact is that up to 50% of consumer products in the food and personal care categories use some form of palm oil. From cookies to shampoo, palm oil provides a plant-based source of fat and functionality to products that other oils do not provide.
As you read labels on products in your pantry or laundry room or bathroom, you may not see the words “palm oil” on the list.
Palm oil is often disguised, hidden behind many different ingredient names. For example an ingredient like “vegetable oil” is an oil blend that most likely contains palm oil. There are also ingredients like sodium lauryl sulfate or stearic acid that are often derived from palm oil. Some companies simply use Elaeis guineensis, the scientific name for palm oil.
Do an internet search for “Ingredient Names For Palm Oil,” you will be surprised at how many products you have in your home that contain palm oil.
Palm oil will not go away as a key ingredient! (Source: Palm Done Right)
As small businesses as well as consumers, we can play a huge role in transforming the industry for the better.
The solution is not to boycott palm oil, but rather to demand that companies use and produce palm oil that will sustain our rainforests and their inhabitants. This demand will encourage oil producers to move toward producing Certified Sustainable Palm oil. If there is no demand for sustainable palm oil, the growers will not grow it. They will continue the cheaper unsustainable practices because no one is paying them for a sustainable product.
The truth is that Palm Oil is not a bad thing. It is an inherently sustainable, nutrient-dense oil. The oil palms are not the problem, it is where and how we grow them. Palm oil can be produced in a responsible manner that respects the environment and the communities where it is commonly grown.
According to a position paper published on November 20, 2018 from the World Wildlife Federation:
Boycotts of palm oil will neither protect nor restore the rainforest, whereas companies undertaking actions for a more sustainable palm oil industry are contributing to a long-lasting and transparent solution.
There is already evidence of the effect that our consumer voices can have on large corporations. Companies like Nestle, Unilever, Kellogg's, Starbucks, and Hershey's have made commitments to sustainable sourcing of palm oil. There’s still much more work to be done, but this is certainly a good first step. (Triple Pundit, June 14, 2014)
So instead of eliminating palm oil, at Chagrin Valley, we use USDA Certified Organic (meaning it is traceable back to its source), and Certified Sustainable Palm oil.
As more and more companies, large and small, support and encourage the development of “sustainable” palm oil, we can make a difference.
Over the years to come, I hope to see the "palm oil-free" labels replaced by "sustainably-sourced palm oil."
What Is Sustainability?
The most widely quoted definition of sustainability comes from a report from the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) published on March 20, 1987, called Our Common Future.
This report states that “sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
In order to keep precious biological systems intact, we need to develop methods of harvesting or using a resource so that it is not depleted or permanently damaged, and can continue to be used with a minimal long-term effect on the environment. It is an investment in current and future generations.
Most of all, we need a global standard on what constitutes sustainable palm oil and a uniform system to implement it.
Certified Sustainable Groups and Certifications
As consumers speak out, more and more companies, large and small, will be forced to support the development of “sustainable” palm oil. So . . . with our voices we can make a difference.
Sustainable palm oil comes from palm oil plantations that meet a set of standards that include respect for plantation workers, indigenous peoples, and communities affected by palm oil production, protection of the rainforest, and a commitment to environmental safeguards such as organic farming techniques. By definition, growing organically means growing without synthetic pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers.
Industrial palm plantations use conventional growing methods that focus on cost savings and high volume and rely on chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. This creates a vicious cycle, where fertilizers contaminate water sources, and kill off micronutrients, requiring more and more fertilizer for plants to grow. Pesticides kill not only pests, but beneficial insects as well, requiring more and more powerful pesticides.
To be honest there are so many types of certifications these days that it makes my head spin. Furthermore, each type of sustainable certification has its pros and cons and we believe these programs must expand and must always strive to do better. Let them continue to hear the voices that are most important -- the consumers!
Supporting sustainable palm oil production is a beginning. It will help assure that valuable tropical forests will not be cleared which preserves the habitat for some of the world’s most threatened species, preserve biodiversity, protects green space that cleans our air, and still provides fair trade and economic opportunities for poor communities and countries.
As a small company, we do not purchase enough Palm Oil to go directly to the source. We depend on our few vetted suppliers and always do our due diligence before purchasing. Below is a description of some of the sustainable certifications our suppliers have adopted or are available.
The Palm Oil Innovation Group (POIG) was launched in November 2013 by a group of international NGOs (including The World Wildlife Fund, The Rainforest Action Network, The Forest Peoples Programme, and Greenpeace) along with palm oil-producing companies. It now includes a network of many concerned groups, like the Orangutan Land Trust, whose goal is to support, encourage, and verify the initiatives set forth by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).
The Palm Oil Innovation Group believes in a certification system much more rigorous than many others. Their standards are based on the principle of "zero deforestation."
Its charter states that “With a focus on the three thematic areas of -- environmental responsibility, partnership with communities, and corporate product integrity, POIG members will strengthen their commitments to socially and environmentally responsible palm oil production.” (poig.org) POIG stands as a strong supporter of RSPO certification.
What Is The Roundtable On Sustainable Palm Oil?
The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was established in 2004 to promote the production of sustainable palm oil and Certified Sustainable Palm Oil is now available.
In the beginning, despite the RSPO’s good intentions, it was criticized by environmental groups for standards that were weak and unclear. Also, some companies were using their membership in RSPO as a method of “greenwashing,” which simply gave the appearance that they are a green company.
Simply because a company was a member of the RSPO, did not mean they were using certified sustainable palm oil. In recent years the RSPO has developed a certification program that commits to truly sustainable and traceable palm oil production--while not perfect they are moving in the right direction.
RSPO focuses its attention on Palm Oil production in Indonesia and Malaysia, areas that were compromised when jungles were clear-cut and burned in the early 2000s. Their certification program has the scope, resources, and expertise to do good for the environment, communities, and wildlife that are impacted by palm production.
RSPO certification is an assurance to the customer that the standard of palm oil production is sustainable. All organizations involved in the supply chain that use RSPO certified sustainable oil products are audited to prevent overselling and mixing palm oil with conventional (or non-sustainable) oil palm products.
The RSPO has developed a set of stringent standards called the Principles & Criteria that define the practices for certified sustainable palm oil production. These standards address the legal, economic, environmental, and social requirements of producing sustainable palm oil.
The RSPO has set up two certification systems:
- One to ensure that palm oil is produced sustainably called “producer/grower certification” or “Principles & Criteria certification”;
- The other is to ensure the integrity of trade in sustainable palm oil, i.e. that palm oil sold as sustainable palm oil has indeed been produced by certified plantations
Both systems involve third-party certification bodies. Such rigorous certification systems considerably reduce the risk for consumers to use palm oil that is not sustainable.
Under the RSPO, growers are not permitted to clear forests or develop on peatlands. Growers are also required to conserve or enhance areas of High Conservation Value (which includes the presence of rare, threatened, or endangered species like the orangutan.) Additionally, growers are responsible for ensuring that rare, threatened or endangered species not be captured, harmed, or killed.
How Does The Rainforest Alliance Help Stop Destruction Of Our Rainforests?
The Rainforest Alliance is an international nonprofit organization that works to conserve biodiversity and ensures sustainable livelihoods. Christopher Wille of the Rainforest Alliance says that palm oil is not the problem—it is the way it is grown.
While the RSPO is more palm oil-focused, the Rainforest Alliance spreads its resources into other areas, helping promote sustainable practices for a variety of crops like coffee and cocoa.
The Rainforest Alliance works with farmers, foresters, and even the tourism trade to conserve natural resources and ensure the long-term economic health of forest communities.
In order to achieve Rainforest Alliance certification, they must meet rigorous standards designed to protect ecosystems, safeguard the well-being of local communities, and improve productivity. The Rainforest Alliance then links sustainable businesses to the growing global community of conscientious consumers through the green frog seal.
“Oil palm is a bounteous and valuable crop," he says. “It’s highly productive compared to other oils, creates jobs and revenues, and can be used in an amazing variety of products.”
What Is Palm Done Right?
The Palm Done Right initiative was created in 2016 by Natural Habitats—one of the world’s top producers of organic palm oil to prove that palm oil can be grown sustainably.
Their goal is to educate manufacturers, businesses, retailers, and consumers on how palm oil can actually serve communities and help the environment.
Palm Done Right presents the first fully integrated, 100-percent organic supply chain in the palm oil industry. Palm Done Right requires fair labor certification, organic certification, Non-GMO Project Verification, and has the highest level of certification — Identity Preserved — offered by the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).
Palm Done Right prohibits clear-cutting, burning forests, planting in virgin or second-growth rain forests, and human trafficking and slavery. This combination of ethical and ecological production practices helps to preserve the environment, native species, and native communities. It is not just another certification system, it works with existing certification systems such as RSPO and Rainforest Alliance to make them better.
Palm Done Right thrives on traceability and transparency including where palm oil is sourced to where it is first processed.
Another goal of Palm Done Right is to encourage shoppers to choose products made with responsibly produced palm oil in the hopes of eventually eliminating its unsustainable counterpart. Learn more about the positive benefits of sustainably sourced palm oil at www.palmdoneright.com.
Palm Done Right believes that if, "Done Right, organic palm oil can be one of the most sustainable oils in the world, nurturing animals, people, communities, and the environment."
What is Friend of the Earth?
We have also worked with suppliers whose Palm Oil is certified through Friend of the Earth.
Friend of the Earth is an international certification plan for sustainable agriculture and livestock breeding whose principles are based on the protection of the whole ecosystem in which certified companies carry out their activities.
The Friend of the Earth certification is issued for products that comply with strict traceability.
All products and their origin are controlled according to the strict criteria of environmental sustainability and social responsibility established by Friend of the Earth.
Our Palm Oil comes from many places. But rest assured it is always certified sustainable.
The aim of Friend of the Earth is to raise awareness and help move companies towards sustainable farming and farming practices carried out not only in terms of the environment but also economic and social.
These Controversies are NOT Unique to Palm Oil Crops
It is interesting to note that although palm oil seems to be at the center of the deforestation controversy, it is not only Palm Oil that destroys our rainforests!
We need to stop using Palm Oil as the scapegoat and focus on all commodities that drive forest and biodiversity loss.
All around the world, native forests and habitats are being converted into plantations for soybeans, rubber, coffee, tea, rice, sugar, corn, as well as logging and grazing lands for beef.
In an article released on Vox in February 2023, Glenn Hurowitz, the founder and CEO of Mighty Earth, an environmental advocacy group, said that progress in palm oil is not enough for the world’s forests. “The change in the palm oil industry is a massive success, and the tragedy is that has not been sufficiently replicated in other industries.”
According to the article one of the main contributors to deforestation is beef. "It’s a far more devastating to the world’s forests than any other commodity. Indeed, between 2001 and 2015, cattle caused roughly four times as much deforestation as palm oil, globally."
Some environmentalists believe that the soybean industry is causing more destruction and devastation to the environment, biodiversity, and indigenous people than any other crop industry on the planet.
Production of soybeans is overtaking huge areas in fragile ecosystems. In South America, almost 4 million hectares of forests are destroyed every year, 2.6 million of them in Brazil alone. This threatens wildlife and biodiversity. It also adversely affects people, the global climate, water reserves, and soil quality.” (The World Wildlife Fund)
Sugar cane is one of the major crops responsible for deforestation in Columbia. It has been forecast that sugar cane and soybeans alone will be responsible for a 20 million hectare expansion of agricultural land in the Amazon regions over the next 40 years.
Rice fields and coffee plantations are the major cause of deforestation in Madagascar--and the list goes on.
Summary of the Palm Oil Controversy
When the palm oil controversy came to the forefront years ago, I heavily researched the topic and came to the decision that the answer was not to boycott palm oil but to be even a small voice in the demand for sustainable palm oil.
The global demand, and thus production, of palm oil will not go away. Even environmentalists admit that boycotting palm oil will be even worse for the planet. Replacing palm oil, an extremely productive crop, with alternative oils will require even more land to be cleared for planting.
While choosing to use organic certified sustainable palm oil has increased the cost of making our soap, I believe it is worth it. To be honest over the years it would have been cheaper, easier and great for marketing to jump on the bandwagon, eliminate palm oil altogether and plaster the words “palm oil free” all over our website and packaging.
But I don't believe it would have been the right thing to do. We are going to face many more issues over the years concerning sustainability. The movement toward a more sustainable world is one we share.
If we want the world to produce more sustainable commodities such as palm oil, soybeans, coffee, sugar, rice, etc., then we must champion that movement and be a part of the change.
We need to support organizations whose goal is to ensure that all crops, not only palm oil, are grown in a manner that supports the sustainability of our native forests, protects wildlife and biodiversity, and safeguards the lives and dignity of indigenous peoples.
As consumers, we need to demand sustainable growing methods for all crops. It is only when the collective voice of consumers is heard that change will happen.
Unilever, the parent company of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, Hellmann’s mayonnaise and Dove soap, is one of the world’s largest palm oil buyers. Unilever aims to make its total supply chain deforestation-free by 2023. Do you think they just decided to make this change on their own?
Unilever’s Chief Procurement Officer Dave Ingram answers that question when he says,
“Consumers want to understand where the ingredients are sourced from, and what’s its impact from a climate, nature and social aspect.”
Our collective voice makes a difference. We must focus our attention on all commodities that drive forest and biodiversity loss. We can all help by purchasing food, clothing, skincare, and other products from companies that source ingredients responsibly.
(Updated March 2023)