In the last post I argued that ethical consumerism can exist under capitalism, and that in fact it’s essential if we want to protect the world from capitalists of the ruthless kind. In this post I’m going to take a look at palm oil in order to illustrate some of the issues that ethical consumerism tackles, and hence why it is so important.
Palm oil production
Palm oil is made from the fruit of the oil palm tree, and palm kernel oil is made from the seed of that same fruit. It’s the most widely consumed vegetable oil in the world (mainly as an ingredient in processed food, but also common in soap and cosmetics). Oil palms are grown in tropical climates in Asia, Central & South America, and West Africa, but two countries dominate the global palm oil supply: Indonesia and Malaysia. Palm oil production has increased rapidly over the last few decades and Indonesia aims to double production by 2030. When grown intensively (i.e., not employing any organic or sustainable practices) the normally plant- and animal-rich rainforest floor is replaced with barren earth.
Why is palm oil used so much?
Hydrogenated vegetable oil was discovered to be extremely unhealthy (trans fats cause heart disease) and major food industries scrambled to find a cheap replacement. Raw palm oil contains beta-carotene and vitamin E, but processed palm oil offers no nutritional benefits and is generally considered to be unhealthy.
Is there anything good about palm oil?
Palm oil is a very high-yield crop. However, yield is not the only consideration when it comes to sustainability. Olive trees, for example, can be grown on marginal land, like rocky hillsides that are not suitable for other crops. Palm oil has a higher yield but often displaces tropical rainforests. If it can be grown sustainably and without human rights violations (and used in an unrefined, organic form) then it has something to offer.
Why is palm oil bad?
You’re probably aware of some of the issues with palm oil, so I won’t go into great detail here. Here’s a quick summary of the main social and environmental issues associated with palm oil.
Deforestation and habitat loss
Most people know about this one. Palm oil is one of the leading drivers of deforestation in Asia, resulting in habitat loss for orangutans, rhinos, elephants, tigers and countless other species.
Peat burning and greenhouse gas emissions
Huge tracts of tropical peatland are being intentionally burned in SE Asia to make room for palm oil production. Peat contains huge amounts of stored carbon which is then released into the atmosphere.
In 2015, fires in Indonesia generated about 600m tonnes of greenhouse gases, which is roughly equivalent to Germany’s entire annual output. – The Guardian.
If all of this peat-stored carbon were released into the atmosphere, it would be equivalent to the carbon emissions from about nine years of global fossil fuel use. – Union of Concerned Scientists.
In 2015 alone, an estimated 100,000 people died from air pollution in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore, largely due to deliberate forest and peatland fires.
Human rights violations
Child labor and exploitation of migrant workers is rampant in the palm oil industry. A majority of migrant workers in Malaysia have their passports confiscated and work under slavery-like conditions. Some of these companies are truly ruthless.
In September 2016, Indonesia’s environment ministry reported that a team of environmental investigators were taken hostage by up to 100 men, believed to have been hired by a palm oil firm. – The Guardian
Water pollution and soil carbon
Intensive palm oil has a higher association with nutrient leaching from the soil (into waterways) and also results in lower soil carbon storage (compared to either forest or rubber plantations).
Quick guide to palm oil certifications
Very briefly, the main palm oil certifications, ranked from best to worst are: Palm Done Right, Palm Oil Innovation group (POIG), Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), and GreenPalm. Note that GreenPalm credits have been replaced by the Palm Trace Credits system – check out this update on palm oil certifications. The only certification that I trust is Palm Done Right, which means that the vast majority of products that contain palm oil are on my avoid list.
Palm Done Right
Palm Done Right is a newer certification scheme that aims to overcome the limitations of the previous programs. It’s certified organic, fair trade, segregated and tracked, and a proportion of sales go back to the local community. Most of it comes from small farmers in Ecuador and West Africa and brands include Dr. Bronners, Nutiva, and Luke’s Organic (who I covered in a post on potato chips).
Palm Oil Innovation Group (POIG)
The POIG has attempted to build upon RSPO standards (below) and to provide a more rigorous certification. Earth Balance, who makes their organic vegan spread in part from Colombian palm oil, is a member of the POIG.
Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO)
The RSPO is the largest group that aims to certify the palm oil supply chain. They have been widely criticized for poor enforcement and weak guidelines. Amazingly, peat burning is not banned under RSPO certification rules, and there are also loopholes that allow deforestation. It’s the kind of certification scheme that suit industries that don’t want to change.
GreenPalm is one of the weakest certification methods (based on trading certificates) that’s supposed to be a stepping stone to RSPO certification. In reality, it’s a failure and has further undermined confidence in RSPO.
Should we just avoid palm oil?
Until things improve, I would say yes: avoid it in the majority of cases, even if RSPO-certified. I avoid palm oil from Indonesia and Malaysia but will sometimes consider products made from oil that’s responsibly sourced from South America or West Africa. There can still be issues with deforestation and worker exploitation no matter where it comes from. That’s why it’s good to either know the company well, or trust in the new Palm Done Right certification.
Above: Cookies from Wholesome Bakery in San Francisco. I took into account the Palm Done Right certification when writing a Green Stars review.