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Palm oil – the terrible truth

Destruction of the rainforest in Indonesia (photo: David Gilbert/RAN).

The growth of the palm oil industry

​Palm oil is the most widely consumed vegetable oil on the planet, demand has undergone a phenomenal growth and is expected to more than double by 2030 and triple by 2050. Not surprising when it is thought to be found in about 50% of supermarket products, from food to cleaners to cosmetics.

Between 1990 and 2010, it is estimated that 8.7 million acres of rainforest in Indonesia, Malaysia and Papua New Guinea were cleared for palm plantations, an area nearly twice the size of Wales. In the same time, Indonesia, the world’s largest producer of palm oil, has seen a 600% growth in the area covered by plantations with an associated loss of 40% of its lowland rainforests.

Next on the list is Central Africa, with more than a million acres of rainforest under imminent threat.

The effects of this mass destruction are devastating to a range of environmental and cultural aspects…


The plight of orangutans has been a key feature of palm oil protest campaigns. 80% of their habitat has been destroyed in the last 20 years and the serious risk of their extinction is imminent.

The list of other mammals affected includes elephants, rhinos and tigers. However this is just the tip of the iceberg, tropical forests contain a huge diversity of species of both animals and plants, all of them are under threat.


Carbon released by deforestation is a major contributor to climate change, accounting for about 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions. 65% of the world’s tropical peatlands are located in Indonesia, and when plantations are established on peat, emissions are even worse.


​Social impacts are also wide ranging, and economic gains are far from evenly distributed. More than 20 million people, comprising hundreds of distinct language groups, depend on Indonesia’s forests. Many traditional communities have lost their lands to plantations. The Indonesian National Lands Agency registered over 3,000 conflicts between palm oil companies and communities in 2013, and the drafting in of migrant labour for plantations causes further problems.

In 2014 the US Department of Labour listed palm oil as one of 55 goods produced globally by forced labour. It is estimated that there are between 72,000 and 200,000 children working on palm plantations in Malaysia.

Expansion of the industry has been blamed for an intensification of land and wealth concentration. A World Bank analysis found that “only smallholder production – not production by private estates – is positively correlated with poverty reduction”.

The founder of the Indonesian Peasant Union, Henry Saragih, says: “The presence of palm oil plantations has spawned a new poverty and is triggering a crisis of landlessness and hunger”.

​The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil

In 2004, pushed by the WWF, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was established to develop and implement environmental and social standards for the industry. The 2000-plus members are mostly processors, traders and consumer goods manufacturers, but also include growers, retailers, NGOs and investors.

Currently only 20% of palm oil is certified to RSPO standards, and even then the organisation has been accused of ‘greenwash’. On the one hand it seeks to improve company practices but, on the other, it seeks to legitimise continued expansion”.

The organisation also stands accused of failing to adequately audit companies or penalise them when they break the rules. The credibility or efficacy of the RSPO is entirely reliant on NGOs… to look at what’s actually happening and try and enforce the standard, not an easy job!!

​Spotting palm oil in a product

Spotting palm oil in a product is a nightmare, especially when you take a look at the range of names describing this one product – why are there so many?!

​These items are definitely palm oil:

  • Cetyl Palmitate and Octyl Palmitate
  • Elaeis Guineensis (Taxonomic name for palm oil)
  • Hexadecylic or Palmitic Acid
  • Hydrated Palm Glycerides
  • Palm Oil Kernal
  • Palmate
  • Palmitate
  • Anything with ‘Palmitate’ at the end

These are likely to be palm oil:

  • Cetearyl Alcohol
  • Emulsifier 422, 430-36, 470-8, 481-483, 493-5
  • Glyceryl Stearate
  • Sodium Dodecyl Sulphate (SDS or NaDS)
  • Sodium Isostearoyl Lactylaye
  • Sodium Laureth Sulphate
  • Sodium Lauryl Sulphates
  • Steareth – 2 & Steareth – 20
  • Stearic Acid Vegetable Oil

As consumers we can avoid the worst offending companies, but we clearly need to push the industry as a whole to be more responsible.  Here are a few ideas:

  • Avoid palm oil altogether if possible.
  • If that’s not possible, then look for companies practicing sustainable palm oil production.
  • The Cheyenne Mountain Zoo maintains the most updated list of companies and products that are members of RSPO and reportedly work toward sustainable production of oil palm.  These companies claim to promote true sustainable agroforestry.  Click here for information on downloading the ‘Sustainable Palm Oil Shopping Guide’.
  • There are also two informative websites: Say No To Palm Oil, which is a terrific resource for international information about palm oil. And also Palm Oil Consumers Action, a great informational site that also supplies links to contact companies.

Something has to change!!!!!!