Small steps: Why ‘palm oil free’ isn’t the answer

Palm oil is production is responsible for deforestation, the extinction of species, human rights’ abuses and pollution. Which is something that most of us want no part of.

When Iceland released it’s Christmas ad in which an orang-utan’s habitat was destroyed by palm oil producers, then palm oil became a hot topic. Which is a good thing.

As a result, many of us decided to follow the lead of Iceland and take the small step of reducing the amount of palm oil in our lives. Which isn’t a good thing. Here’s why.

Palm oil is a super crop

Palm oil is really, really productive. One hectare of land can produce 4,000kg of oil. Soya bean oil - one of the most common alternatives - produces 445kg. No other vegetable oil can be produced as efficiently as palm oil. We need crops like palm oil to feed an exploding world population.

If we all swapped to soya bean oil (one of the most popular alternatives) then ten times the amount of land would be needed to produce it, creating its own host of environmental and social problems.

Palm oil is everywhere

There is no getting away from palm oil. It’s used in up to 50% of the products in the supermarket, from baby milk formula and pizza to lipstick, ice cream, washing powder, bread, shampoo…

If we all insist on making these products palm oil free, then in most cases the manufacturers will not simply discard the ingredient - they will replace it with an oil like soya bean or rapeseed. The problem will move, but it won’t go away. There are exceptions (peanut butter being an obvious one) but vegetable oil is an important ingredient in many products.

Getting to know your SLS from your SCS

There is a second reason why, for most of us, attempting to eradicate palm oil from our lives isn’t viable. It’s easy to reject a product when it lists palm oil as an ingredient. But what about Sodium Kernelate? Or Elaeis Guineensis? Or Glyceryl Stearate? Or - wait for it - vegetable fat?

Any of these could (and probably do) come from palm oil. The World Wildlife Fund lists a shocking 25 ingredients - all of which are simply another name for palm oil. We’re constantly consuming palm oil - without even realising it.

The sustainable option

So where does that leave the parent in who just wants to wash some nappies in a detergent that doesn’t cause deforestation?

All palm oils are not created equal. Rather than rejecting palm oil, the alternative is to embrace sustainable palm oil. By looking for the RSPO logo, you know you are avoiding ‘dirty’ palm oil and choosing palm oil that has been certified according to the principles of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil.

RSPO is a long way from perfect, but virtually all the major environmental groups believe it is a better alternative than switching to non-palm oil products.

If Iceland banned it, why shouldn’t I?

Iceland used RSPO certified palm oil in its own brand products until it banned palm oil in 2018. But in a thoughtful and considered article, managing director Richard Walker made it clear that Iceland is still ‘absolutely 100% behind the idea of sustainable palm oil’.

Walker says it himself: Iceland’s ban is symbolic.

The company also controls its own supply chain - so it can be confident that it is replacing palm oil with sustainable, ethical alternatives (a move which cost it £5 million). But most of us do not have that luxury. A product may proudly proclaim it is ‘palm oil free’ (a wonderful new trick for marketers in 2019) but as consumers we have absolutely no knowledge of where the alternative, like rapeseed, has come from.

RSPO isn’t perfect, so what else to do?

It can seem a little overwhelming: To use palm oil or not? To opt for RSPO, which is better than nothing - but far from perfect.

The Iceland ban highlighted that changes in the way palm oil is produced are not happening quickly enough. If you are passionate about palm oil then you can:

-Support social media campaigns that target government policy and brands with a ‘questionable’ stance.

-Support charities and NGOs that are tackling this issue on a daily basis (with money as well as action).

-Raise awareness amongst your own network by sharing campaigns, facts and images.

  • In October 2018, the UN’s IPCC said that urgent and unprecedented change is needed to avoid catastrophic environmental breakdown. But massive change happens through a series of little tweaks and alterations. ‘Small steps’ is a series of occasional articles about the small changes that we can make, that add up to make a big difference.

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