Ethical Consumerism, Part 2: Why is Palm Oil Bad?

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.

Palm Oil overview
Top: Global palm oil production is dominated by Indonesia and Malaysia. Bottom left: Rainforest clearance for palm oil cultivation. Bottom right: Intensive palm oil plantations typically result in barren earth. Images: Wikipedia

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:

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.

Air pollution

Pollution, and especially air pollution, is the leading environmental cause of death in the world these days, according to the WHO and The Lancet.

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

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.

Palm Oil Certifications V2
Palm oil certifications. The good (Palm Done Right), the poor (RSPO) and the ineffective (GreenPalm).

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.

Wholesome Bakery label

Above: Cookies from Wholesome Bakery in San Francisco. I took into account the Palm Done Right certification when writing a Green Stars review.

19 thoughts on “Ethical Consumerism, Part 2: Why is Palm Oil Bad?

  1. I was horrified to learn about this…it’s in Earth Balance and in the peanut butter I was getting. So, I found alternates. But, my question is, should I get vegan butter (like Miyoko’s) or lactose-free butter? <–lactose intolerant Hard to know?

    1. Hey – nice to hear from you! Earth Balance worked with the POIG to raise the bar on palm oil ethics (higher than the RSPO standards). They deserved credit for that and for helping to change the food industry for the better. Here’s more info from Earth Balance and here’s a good article on whether to support sustainable palm oil or avoid it completely. I used to use Earth Balance but think ethical standards there are slipping. These days I’ve started to just use a little olive oil on my toast (in part, to avoid the plastic packaging). Didn’t realize that Miyoko’s have butter now – looks like a good choice too (if you can afford it on a regular basis!). I just wrote to Miyoko’s to ask for more info on their cashew sourcing (since there are human rights issues in the cashew industry too!!).

  2. Thanks for sharing and illuminating me on the issue of palm oil. I was aware of the deforestation and suspicious of packaging labelled “sustainably sourced palm oil.” Now I know what to look for. 🙂

  3. I am suspicious of these generic claims too – a reliable label is always helpful 🙂
    Please let me know if you come across the Palm Done Right label.

    1. I agree. I avoid it in the vast majority of cases. (With about two exceptions where I know that the palm oil is sustainably sourced and supports local communities and habitats.)

  4. I became really aware of the palm oil issue after watching Chris Packham visit Indonesia to search for a native girl he met a long time ago (not available at moment:
    The natives’ jungle habitat had been nearly all cleared for palm oil plantations and several of the tribespeople had been killed.
    I’ve since looked for palm oil on ingredients to avoid it, and found it on cheap noodles and savoury rice, so have cut them out.

  5. That’s a terribly sad story.
    Thanks for sharing it. Yeah, noodles are often a big offender. (I had planned to do a blog post on instant noodles someday…)
    Kinda crazy that ramen even needs palm oil – the noodles should be flour and water, but they add in the oil to make them extra..delicious?!

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