What Is Palm Oil?
The term “palm oil” refers to an edible vegetable oil derived from the fruit pulp of African oil palm. It is incredibly versatile and can be used as “vegetable oil” in food products, or transformed into any number of ingredients (called “derivatives”) for household products.
Palm oil is the world’s leading vegetable oil — and for good reason. Palm oil’s yield per hectare handily outpaces that of other high yield vegetable oil crops like rapeseed, sunflower, and soybean, has virtually no taste, a high melt point, and holds color well. These qualities make palm oil the perfect choice for a whole host of applications, from cooking to cosmetics.
As a result, palm oil has infiltrated just about every market in some shape or form and is reported to be found in 50% of supermarket products, including packaged foods, cleaning products, and cosmetics. It gives chocolate a glossy sheen while keeping it melt-resistant, thickens nail polish without compromising fluidity, cooks ramen noodles to the perfect consistency before packaging, gives shampoo the suds necessary to wash away the day, and helps lipsticks to hold rich pigments, go on smoothly, and remain solid in a hot car. Palm oil and its derivatives are so versatile, in fact, that they lurk in an astounding 70% of personal care products as emollients, emulsifiers, and surfactants.
But all of this benefit comes at a steep price.
Though palm crops have a very high yield, they can thrive only in the 10 degrees north or south of the equator. Intensive, monoculture cultivation in this incredibly biorich stretch of land comes with extreme environmental and social ramifications that make harvesting and consuming this golden crop unsustainable. Today, palm oil farming is solely responsible for some of the worst deforestation, greenhouse gas emissions, loss of biodiversity (endangered orangutans are under particular threat), water pollution, and soil erosion, globally.
To meet the global demand for this versatile oil, fifty million tons of palm oil are produced annually, for which more than 14 million hectares of land have already been deforested. That number continues to climb every day. For a little perspective, the area of land already deforested for palm oil crops is about the size of Bangladesh — the entire country.
Palm oil’s specific growth conditions make Indonesia and Malaysia ideal candidates for plantations. In fact, Indonesia alone has amassed 6 million hectares worth of deforested land for crops. The equator is unique not only for what it grows, but also forwhat lives amongst that growth. Indonesia is home to nearly 15% of all wildlife and plants on the planet, and the biodiversity we see in these areas may be the richest we will ever see in our lifetimes.
The effects of deforestation in these areas have been catastrophic for the wildlife that calls this region home. The Bornean orangutan’s population has plummeted 50% in just three generations, and continues to decline at an alarming rate as a result of palm-oil plantations. Similarly, Sumatran elephants have lost more than two-thirds of their habitat and half their population since 1985. Deforestation and forest fires force orangutans, elephants, and other wildlife out of their natural habitats and into the outskirts of forested areas, making them incredibly vulnerable to poachers or those working in the illegal pet trade.
It’s not just the harm to the animals themselves that’s damaging, but the impact on the entire ecosystem. Orangutans are essential to the forest and research shows that their presence encourages the growth of more than 50 species of fruit trees and 15 species of plants. Plus, they are highly explorative and have excellent daily coverage of the upper forest, opening the canopy and letting sun shine below, encouraging plant life.
Another animal that has conservationists worried is the critically endangered Sumatran tiger, which has been similarly devastated by habitat loss and fragmentation of forested areas. This vulnerability, coupled with poaching and illegal trade, means that tiger populations are hovering at fewer than 400 in the wild with the very real possibility that we may witness this beautiful animal’s extinction in our lifetime.
Similar gravity applies to the plight of Malaysian sun bears and Sumatran elephants and rhinos, three animals — amongst many — that are experiencing rapid population loss as a result of crop building and plantation preparation.
HUMAN RIGHTS VIOLATIONS
The dense, rich rainforests forests in the regions in which palm grows best are not only home to animals and diverse plant life but to people, too. In fact, 45 million indigenous peoples live in Indonesia’s forests today. As a result of the palm oil boom, thousands of land and human rights conflicts have emerged (6). For those living in poverty, plantations are a double-edged sword: On one hand, they provide the prospect of work, income, and opportunity for a different life; on the other, in the worst scenarios, potential workers — sometimes teenagers or even children — are whisked away to an unfamiliar and unforgiving industry where they find the promises that enticed them to leave their homes replaced by forced work in terrible conditions for meager wages. Food and water availability can be scarce, and basic freedoms are tightly monitored and controlled.
For indigenous peoples who want nothing to do with the industry, companies anxious to procure land for expansion pose a great threat. The native Dayak people of Borneo have staged exhaustive protests, some of which end in violence, and endure the weight every day of an uncertain future for their younger generations.
Though palm oil is lauded for being a high-yield crop, as it provides nearly four tons per hectare of land, the means by which these plantations are cultivated are incredibly problematic.
To start, companies often use slash and burn farming to quickly and effectively clear existing land for planting. However, rainforests naturally store large quantities of greenhouse gases, which are then released into the atmosphere when they are burned. This is a double-whammy to climate impact, as the burning releases high volumes of carbon dioxide, while also destroying vast areas of the “lungs of the Earth.”
The hot, wet climate of Indonesia and Malaysia also lends itself to the growth of peatland swamps littered amongst traditional rainforest. Peatland marsh is primarily decayed organic matter that becomes richer in carbon over time. Indonesia’s peatlands can store up to 35 billion tons of carbon all on their own. When this kind of land is cleared, the ramifications are devastating. In 2013, smoke from fires in Indonesia were so pervasive that they are said to have caused the worst smog in Singapore’s history, a country nearly 2,000 miles away.
Scientists have warned that the critical threshold for climate disaster is a rise in global temperature greater than two degrees Celsius. Scientific consensus is that these two degrees may be the catalyst for the extinction of nearly half of all species on Earth. With areas of land as big as soccer fields being deforested every couple of minutes, this is a problem that requires urgent action, and failure to address it will cause harm well within our lifetimes.
Though palm oil is not “better” than other plant oils, the trees do yield more oil at a lower cost. It’s the most productive crop in the world with yields per hectare about nine times that of soybeans, seven and a half times that of rapeseed, and six times that of sunflower oil. Plus, palm oil‘s global footprint in terms of total land use per yield is relatively small compared to other commodities. However, despite covering an area 1/6th the size of soybean plantations, palm oil plantations have a distinctly strong, localized impact on unique habitat.
So, the question is — is it possible to take cultivation practices for this “golden” crop from devastating to sustainable?
THE DEAL WITH “SUSTAINABLE PALM OIL”
“Sustainable Palm Oil” is a widely-debated term, but the aim of it is to encourage ecologically responsible and humane practices throughout the supply chain through a recognized certification. Along with improved cultivation practices, companies that source palm oil also need to adopt policies that promise no deforestation, no peat development, and no exploitation (NDPE). This means, no burning land, assessing land for high carbon stock and high conservation value before developing plantations, and obtaining land use permission from indigenous communities.
Sustainable palm oil is most identifiable by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil’s (RSPO) certification system, “Certified Sustainable Palm Oil” (CSPO), which was founded in 2004, and is made up of oil palm growers, retailers, NGOs, and manufacturers.
To become RSPO Certified and officially "sustainable", a grower or (or vis-à-vis, a company) pledges not to clear any primary forest, to have transparent supply chains, to check how much carbon they are emitting, to limit planting on peatlands, to treat workers responsibly, and to commit to other markers of ecology and sustainable development.
ARE THERE PROBLEMS WITH “SUSTAINABLE” PALM OIL?
Yes. Though intentions are good, “sustainable” palm oil efforts are criticized for not prioritizing smallholder farmers and for enabling corporate greenwashing.
Despite supplying an estimated two-fifths of the world’s palm oil the RSPO certification is often ill-suited for smallholder farmers. The exclusion of these 3 million farmers not only precludes them from participating in the economic opportunities associated with the sustainability certification, but also fails to help these farmers to improve the practices that contribute to so much environmental harm.
Though the RSPO makes great efforts in carbon sequestration, protecting ecosystems, and restoring water quality, it is not stringent enough about deforestation. According to a Greenpeace report, it took 14 years to ban members from destroying forests — which it did in November 2018. The ban may still be unenforced on certain plantations.
Add to this reports by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) that audits routinely fail to identify and mitigate unsustainable practices and compliance violations by oil palm firms. There is even evidence of auditors colluding with plantation companies to disguise violations. Reported issues include fraudulent reports, greenwashing, infringements on indigenous peoples’ land rights, trafficking, failure to protect endangered species, and conflicts of interest between producers and auditors.
Finally, it’s possible that the Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO) label can be abused to mislead consumers. The RSPO allows for four types of certification in its tiered system, each varying in levels of standards and strictness: Identity Preserved (IP), Segregated (SG), Mass Balanced (MB), and Book & Claim (B&C). This tiered system is meant to allow companies to adopt responsible practices at any phase of their ‘“journey” and to encourage inclusion, but the RSPO sets no measures to encourage companies to move up levels over time, nor does it require companies to disclose which method of certification they use in their marketing — they simply get to claim “Certified Sustainable Palm Oil”.
TLDR: While these efforts to reform the palm oil industry are vital, the strides made thus far are not enough, and the lax marketing regulations do not afford consumers the opportunity to support those working the hardest to make these urgent improvements.
WHAT IS AXIOLOGY DOING TO HELP?
Axiology stands firmly against palm oil. We formulate beautiful, high-performing palm-oil-free lipsticks from conflict-free, vegan ingredients, proving that beauty staples can be created without deforestation, cruelty to animals, or devastating environmental effects. We hope our commitment to palm-oil-free cosmetics encourages other industry members to follow suit.
In addition to cruelty-free sourcing and public awareness, we also donate to the Orangutan Foundation International, founded in 1986 by the world’s first orangutan researcher and legendary conservationist, Dr. Birute Mary Galdikas. OFI is instrumental in rescuing, rehabilitating, and eventually releasing orangutans affected by the palm-oil industry. Their research, community outreach, and technological efforts (like GIS mapping) give orangutans the edge in combating the many trials they’ll face until the industry is efficiently regulated. We have also “adopted” 3 orangutans, whom we care for every year via donations.
WHERE DO YOU COME IN?
You hold amazing power as a consumer.. Vote with your dollars by choosing sustainable brands, like Axiology, with no connections to deforestation, peatland destruction, or animal endangerment — and be sure to tell competitors, why you didn’t choose them. Boost your impact by getting involved with foundations and organizations like Official Orangutan Foundation (OFI) and the Rainforest Action Network.
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