What to do about palm oil – many sides to a slippery coin

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What do we do about palm oil? Boycott the products, look for ‘sustainable’ labels, challenge manufacturers, or wait for the industry to transform? A better understanding of the complexities of palm oil production might help us decide.


About 50% of all packaged products contain palm oil. The reason: palm oil is an incredibly efficient crop and useful product. It grows fast and requires a significantly smaller portion of land than any other vegetable oil plant. Unfortunately, oil-palms can only be cultivated in the tropics, and increased production is causing deforestation, which is threatening the habitat of the orangutan, pygmy elephant and Sumatran rhino. Deforestation of tropical forests also causes massive increases in greenhouse gas emissions.

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) is the main certification body for the production of sustainable palm oil and sets high farming standards, including zero deforestation and humane working conditions. Buying products containing 100% RSPO certified palm oil is considered an ethical choice. This palm oil comes through a segregated value chain and is sold at a premium.

However, the RSPO also sells Green Palm certificates, also known as the ‘book and claim system’. If a palm oil plantation is certified sustainable, its owners are given these certificates equal to the amount of palm oil produced. Anyone can buy these certificates to ‘offset’ their use of palm oil. They are then able to make the claim that they support the production of RSPO-certified sustainable palm oil. While the full value of each certificate is sent back to the RSPO producer, it is unclear whether this money goes toward encouraging sustainable palm oil production.

There is a vast difference between being a member of the RSPO, being affiliated with it, buying Green Palm certificates, and producing or selling products using 100% certified palm oil. Only the latter can truly be considered sustainable. Some companies take a chance by claiming to use certified sustainable palm oil, but in actual fact they’re only purchasing the certificates.

While alternatives to palm oil (coconut oil and soybean) exist, these use 4 to 10 times more land to cultivate. Greenpeace, Beauty Without Cruelty and the WWF all agree that it is better to work toward sustainable palm oil farming than replacing palm oil with a different vegetable oil. This means boycotting palm oil is not necessarily the best option.

In South Africa, manufacturers are struggling to purchase 100% RSPO certified palm oil, as they say most of it is sold in Europe and the local demand is too low. As South African consumers, our best call of action is to engage with manufacturers of products that contain palm oil, enquire about the palm oil’s source, and ask companies to use truly sustainable alternatives. The more such requests they receive, the more they will realise the need to explore alternatives, and the higher the local demand will become.


The presence of palm oil in our food and cosmetics has been an environmental concern for many years, and attention around it increased again recently when the UK-based frozen food company, Iceland, released a moving Christmas ad about the plight of the orangutans who lose their habitat due to deforestation for palm oil production.

Boycotting palm oil is a common and valid reaction. Many consumers are already doing so or even challenging manufacturers about their continued use of palm oil. Yet it may not be that simple. This article will unpack the problem and some of its complexities so we can make informed decisions in the aisles.

Why there is palm oil in so many products

According to the WWF, 50% of packaged products contain palm oil. Most of these are food (chocolates, ice cream, spreads, instant meals, bread) and cosmetics (lipstick, shampoo, deodorant), but palm oil is also found in animal feed and cleaning products.

Yet as much as we may despise it, the motivation for using palm oil is sound. It could even be considered a bit of a miracle crop. The WWF lists why: It is semi-solid at room temperature so can keep spreads spreadable; it is resistant to oxidation and so can give products a longer shelf-life; it’s stable at high temperatures and so helps to give fried products a crispy and crunchy texture; it’s also odourless and colourless so doesn’t alter the look or smell of food products.

Furthermore, palm oil is an incredibly efficient crop. It has the highest yield per hectare of any oil or oilseed crop. Palm oil supplies 35% of the world’s vegetable oil demand on just 10% of the land. According to the New York Times, each tree produces about 22kg of palm fruit every two weeks.

The problem with palm oil

The problem with palm oil starts with our increased consumption of, and demand for, palm oil products. Oil-palm cultivation skyrocketed over the decades. The main concern is that oil-palms can only be cultivated in the tropics. The tree flourishes on the peat wetland soil common in Asia, Africa and South America. While a lot of the oil-palm plantations are found on already cleared land, the concern is the virgin land being cleared for increased cultivation.

To expand plantations, tropical forest and areas valued for their biodiversity and capacity to sequester carbon dioxide are cleared, oftentimes by fires, which can burn out of control, causing more environmental damage. This forest loss coupled with conversion of carbon rich peat soils release millions of tonnes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The tropical rain forests of Indonesia, and in particular the peatland regions of Borneo, have large amounts of carbon trapped within their trees and soil. Clearing the forests for oil-palm cultivation releases this carbon. NASA researchers say the accelerated destruction of Borneo’s forests contributed to the largest single-year global increase in carbon emissions in two millenniums, an explosion that transformed Indonesia into the world’s fourth-largest source of such emissions, reports the New York Times.

Apart from its contribution to climate change, the deforestation destroys habitats of, among others, the orangutan, pygmy elephant, and Sumatran rhino. There are also social consequences to the rapid expansion of oil-palm plantations. Communities are displaced from their land and there are a number of labour issues on plantations, such as fair wages, child labour, safe working conditions and the freedom to unionise.

Sustainable palm oil certification and its validity

Being such an efficient crop and useful product, a scenario where palm oil is still cultivated, but in more sustainable ways, seems a good alternative. This will allow consumers to make better choices by looking for a sustainable palm oil label.

The Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was formed in 2004. It has a production standard that sets best practices for producing and sourcing palm oil and it is currently the dominating certification body in the industry.

The RSPO farming regulations are strict. At their last meeting in November 2018, a complete ban on any kind of deforestation for cultivation was put in place. Previously the regulation stated that no primary forest or conservation areas may be cleared for new palm oil plantations, but this still allowed cutting of secondary forests and peat forests with a peat layer less than 3 meters deep. Other regulations are around soil fertility, waste and water management, and community support.

RSPO certified palm oil is more expensive and it comes through a segregated value chain. For products to be 100% RSPO certified means a company is audited by an external auditor to make sure they are buying enough certified palm oil for all of their needs. They have to report back on this annually. It is a lengthy and costly process to become 100% RSPO certified, both for farmers and manufacturers.

If companies follow this process, it seems we can buy their products guilt-free. The WWF agrees that we can trust products that are 100% RSPO certified. These companies will make the fact explicit and it will likely be stated on the label with details provided on a website. Examples of such products are Biscoff and Nairns biscuits as well as Lindt chocolates.

The problem with Green Palm certificates

There is a vast difference between selling products with 100% RSPO certified palm oil and merely being a member of the RSPO and purchasing Green Palm certificates. If the RSPO’s auditors certify a particular palm oil plantation as a sustainable operation, its owners are given Green Palm certificates equal to the number of tonnes of palm oil being produced there. Anyone can buy these certificates to ‘offset’ their use of palm oil. The palm oil they buy is still the same palm oil everyone else buys. This means that if you buy a chocolate bar with the Green Palm logo on, it probably doesn’t contain sustainable palm oil; the producer merely purchased Green Palm certificates to equal the amount of oil in the product.

These manufacturers are then able to make the claim that they support the production of RSPO-certified sustainable palm oil. The full value of each certificate is sent back to the RSPO producer to “reinvest this premium to help tackle the environmental and social issues created by the production of palm oil” (GreenPalm.org). According to What is Palm Oil, there is no information about whether the money is going toward tackling these issues.

‘Supporting’ sustainable palm oil is therefore not the same as using 100% RPSO certified palm oil, but some manufacturers are using this grey area to their advantage. Some producers claim to purchase 100% sustainable palm oil, but they’re actually only purchasing Green Palm certificates. This happened with Mondelez, who produce Cadbury’s chocolate and Oreo cookies. According to The Independent, they stated that their products contain sustainable palm oil, but 95% of their purchases were merely covered by the certificates.

However, in South Africa, companies are struggling to meet the higher standards. At the moment less than 20% of the world’s palm oil is certified as sustainable, reports The Conversation. A local company argues that most of it is sold in Europe and there is not a high enough demand to extend the segregated value chain of sustainable palm oil to us. When we read things like “we support the production of sustainable palm oil” on local companies’ websites, we should be weary of criticising too soon.

Low incentive for becoming RSPO certified

There is low incentive in the palm oil industry to become certified, as a large proportion of the market isn’t willing to pay the premium for sustainable products. Because of this only about half of the certified sustainable palm oil is currently being sold as such, and with the higher price tag. According to The Guardian, the RSPO introduced the Green Palm certificates to make up the difference in price between unsustainable and sustainable palm oil for those that are 100% RSPO certified but fail to find premium buyers.

Another barrier to becoming RSPO certified is the high cost and standards. The RSPO believes making the standards too high means excluding between 60% and 70% of palm oil suppliers who find the standards too demanding. These are mostly smallholder producers who rely on their plantations for survival and don’t have the means to become RSPO certified. 40% of Malaysia, 50% of Indonesia and 80% of Thailand’s palm oil production is from smallholders, but only 3.5% of the world’s smallholders are RSPO-certified.

Enforcing sustainable farming policies

The RSPO is not the only existing sustainability certification. ‘No Deforestation, No Peat, No Exploitation’ is another policy for many large companies, including Wilmar, which is one of the largest palm oil processors. The problem with these policies is that it is not rigorously enforced. Green Peace argues Wilmar is not sticking to its own policy and Eco-Business writes of a report by the Zoological Society of London showing that many palm oil companies with zero-deforestation policies are falling short of properly enforcing their commitments. The report, which assessed 70 of the world’s most significant palm oil producers and traders, found that many of the companies’ zero-deforestation targets lacked scope and on-the-ground verification.

This begs the question whether the RSPO is enforcing its policies. The Rainforest Action Network says the RSPO had for years failed to enforce its standards. RAN released a report in 2016 in which they explain that RSPO haven’t suspended certain companies that have been proven to abuse labour rights of farm workers and employ child labour. While companies such as Nairns continue to file their annual audits, reports like the above compromise the credibility of the RSPO.

Boycotting vs sustainable farming

It may seem the only way to secure the safety of the orangutans is to boycott palm oil completely. To do that we need a vegetable oil that can substitute palm oil in our products. The main alternatives are currently soybean and coconut oil. Unfortunately, according to the WWF, replacing all the vegetable oil requirements currently met by palm oil would require between 4 and 10 times the land area. Further, the Amazon is a major growing area for soybeans, so the problem of deforestation would persist.

A recent report by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature concluded that boycotting palm oil would merely shift – rather than counter – losses to rainforests and wildlife caused by agriculture, reports The Conversation. Beauty Without Cruelty, the WWF, and Greenpeace all stand on the side of sustainable farming and do not believe that boycotting is the answer. They believe palm oil and the environment can co-exist as long as it’s grown sustainably. This would mean implementing sustainable farming practices on smallholder farms that don’t require the rigorous and expensive processes of the RSPO, but also holding the RSPO accountable to enforce its own policies. It may also require a move away from the Green Palm certificates, so companies that want to purchase sustainable palm oil have no other choice but to pay the premium. This may increase incentive for farmers to become certified.

Our products may become more expensive, but at least we’ll know they’re not causing habitat loss in the rainforests.

What can SA consumers do right now?

It seems South African consumers aren’t left with much choice in the current landscape: either we stop consuming all products that require vegetable oil, or we contribute to continued land loss for vegetable oil cultivation. The Guardian believes the only way we can speed up the sustainable certification schemes is to demand sustainable palm oil from producers. This means 100% certified palm oil, not products offset with Green Palm certificates.

One way to do this is to demand more transparency from suppliers. When you see palm oil as an ingredient, it’s your right as a consumer to contact the company and enquire about the source of their palm oil. Knowing the difference between being a member of the RSPO, having a vague policy around deforestation, and using certified sustainable palm oil transported through a segregated value chain will help you decide whether the company is simply claiming to be sustainable or truly using sustainable palm oil. The more enquiries these manufacturers receive, the quicker they’ll realise the importance of using truly sustainable palm oil and this will increase the local demand for certified sustainable palm oil.

While we wait for the wheels to turn, we could also lighten our palm oil footprint by buying less of the products that contain palm oil when we can’t be sure of the palm oil’s source. Chocolates, cookies, instant meals, and processed, pre-packed bread are all things we could consume less of rather than replacing them with products that require a different kind of oil. Finally, we could sign this WWF petition to try and move the process along.