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How sustainable is sustainable palm oil?

From Iceland’s ban on palm oil in its own-brand products to Greenpeace’s direct action against Nestlé, the issue of the environmental and social harm inflicted by consumers’ insatiable demand for palm oil is high on the green agenda.  

Indonesian and Malaysian palm oil is ubiquitous in the cheap and abundant packaged products from ready meals to soap in our weekly shops. The major environmental and commercial benefits of palm oil are that the oil palms it is produced from are ten times more land-efficient than their nearest rival, soy bean oil.

Despite its efficiency palm oil production has destroyed huge swathes of tropical forest in Indonesia and Malaysia. As a result, charismatic species such as orangutans are now ‘Critically Endangered’ according to the United Nations Red List of Threatened Species, huge volumes of CO2 are released into the atmosphere, thousands of workers are exploited, and indigenous communities are displaced. 

In response to negative publicity from NGOS the palm oil industry and its investors formed the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) with the objective of ‘breaking the link between palm oil production and environmental and social harm’. Palm oil producers subscribing to RSPO’s voluntary code of conduct guarantee ‘sustainability’ of their product by agreeing not to expand their operations into primary forest and respect the rights of workers and indigenous communities.  

Taken at face-value producers’ subscription to RSPO is commendable, and consumers can purchase products formulated with ‘RSPO’ certified palm oil with a clear conscience. However, many retailers marketing the palm oil used to formulate their products as ‘sustainable’ fail to reveal that RSPO certification is a spectrum. At the top end palm oil is obtained from a single, fully traceable source, and at the bottom end RSPO certified palm oil is mixed with ordinary, untraceable palm oil.

Academic research suggests that there is ample space to produce palm oil without encroaching into tropical forest in Indonesia and Malaysia. However, corruption and political failings encourage expansion into primary forest to continue and prevent dissemination of the techniques required for intensification.

To meaningfully address the palm oil problem major retailers must unite and produce a strong, common definition of sustainable palm oil and adopt RSPOs most stringent certification standard. This would enable collective monitoring of supply chains and expulsion of irresponsible producers and improve the integrity of the RSPO standard. Until this happens claims by retailers that their palm oil is ‘sustainable’ cannot be taken at face value.

To know which companies uses palm oil and if they are sourced responsibly, visit app.circlesquared.com