Palm oil is used in about 50% of all consumer products and not enough people understand how the palm oil industry affects our planet. Throughout this article, I hope to educate you on the downfalls and silver linings of palm oil and how it can be used sustainably. Even though there are issues with the palm oil industry, if we harness its benefits and counter its determinants properly, it can lead us to an environmentally prosperous future. This article will outline the research that we at Heavenly Street have taken in order to understand the palm oil industry and explain our choice in using sustainable palm oil.
What is Palm Oil:
Palm oil is a type of vegetable oil that is very prevalent in many consumer goods, specifically food and bath products. Beverages, condiments, candy and personal care products all use palm oil because of how cheap and cost-efficient it is (I’ll touch on that later). The origin of palm oil comes from West Africa, but it can grow in any sort of tropical climate. Malaysia, Indonesia and Ecuador are all significant suppliers of Palm oil. To summarize, Palm oil is literally everywhere and we cannot go about our day without consuming it.
Downfalls of Palm Oil:
To start with the bad news first, there are many points to touch on when discussing how we are mishandling palm oil. Unethical cultivation of palm oil in tropical countries causes deforestation, forest fires, loss of life and habitat for many animal species, especially Orangutans.
Introducing the RSPO
The Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) is a multinational organization founded in 2004 with the intent to promote sustainable cultivation of palm oil across the industry. The RSPO provides certifications for different operations such as shipping, processing and harvesting of palm oil for the industry to adhere to. The RSPO is committed to the preservation of the environment whilst producing palm oil at scale, although they have not always been seen in the best light. In 2008, 256 environmental and humanitarian organizations from across the globe rejected the RSPO as blatant greenwashing. The RSPO has since worked with numerous organizations that validate the RSPO, but there is still more work to be done.
According to the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, an organization committed to the study of environmental conservation and sustainability in Colorado, Indonesia is facing the highest rate of tropical rainforest loss in the world due to the deforestation in the rainforests to make way for palm oil plants to be harvested. A statistic states that 300 football fields of forest are cut down every hour in Indonesia for palm oil. These are the practices the RSPO wants to fix; The RSPO’s global outreach and engagement manager Stefano Savi cited a study that suggested there was a 33% drop in deforestation from 2001-2015 in RSPO certified palm oil operations compared to non-certified palm oil operations. This 33% should be seen as a good start.
Burning practices greatly tie into deforestation. “Burning practices” constitute the act of burning down forests in order to plant the Fresh Fruit Bunches that can be cultivated to palm oil. This is done because burning practices are a time-efficient way to create land for palm oil plants to be harvested and processed for profit. However, a study by rainforest-rescue.org states that biofuels, or the burning of plants, emit three times more greenhouse gas compared to traditional fossil fuels. This is definitely an aspect of the palm industry that the RSPO has targeted. The purposeful burning of the forests is against the outlines for RSPO regulations, although plant residue is still being used as fuel in factories.
Orangutans are considered a critically endangered species, and non-sustainable palm oil plantations are one of the main causes. One of the many severe repercussions of both deforestation and burning practices is the loss of habitat for the Orangutans and many others. Orangutans are incredibly intelligent. They can memorize intricate maps of the rainforests to find food and other essentials, when we take that ability away from them we disrupt their way of living; thus putting them on the brink of extinction.
How the RSPO Has Helped
Although the RSPO still has its downfalls, it has created some solid infrastructure to build off to fix the problems surrounding palm oil. There are studies that suggest the RSPO has cracked down on non-sustainable palm oil and has eliminated many deforestation/burning practices. We still have a long way to go, but it is better than nothing. By talking to people that work in the palm oil industry directly, it becomes abundant that lots of the RSPO focus has been on creating communities in these countries that are economically sustainable. The RSPO has recently partnered with many global environmental groups such as the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) to improve their certification and make the most environmental and economic impact. These are steps in the right direction for sure.
In an article written by eco-business from 2018, the RSPO “voted overwhelmingly in favour of the ban (of deforestation practices). The ban is now part of the RSPO’s Principles and Criteria (P&C), which member companies must comply with for their product to be certified sustainable.” This happened through pressure from both consumers and corporations alike. But it is important that we see this agenda carried through and reap the benefits accordingly.
Palm Done Right
The sustainability metrics palm oil has in comparison to other types of oil that can act as a substitute is the main reason against boycotting palm oil altogether. A staggering statistic is that per hectare of land, palm oil can produce 3.8 tonnes of palm oil annually. The next best alternative is canola oil, that can only produce 0.8 tonnes of product given the same time and resources. Due to this high production rate, it’s clear that sustainable palm oil is the way to optimize finite natural resources, but it can still be done better. Palm oil can be cultivated in an environmentally conscious manner while not foregoing our environmental morals.
Through the significant research that Heavenly Street has done into this topic, we came across an organization called PalmDoneRight. PalmDoneRight is one of the players in the palm oil industry advocating for the sustainability of palm oil and believes that the industry can do better. This organization has taken admirable steps towards being the most environmentally and ethically conscious they can possibly be. The vast amount of certifications they hold range from zero deforestation policies to a collection of rainforest alignment and organic certifications. They have shown the economic impact that palm oil can have on these communities that cultivate and process the plant. These communities have improved drastically through sustainable palm oil. PalmDoneRight invests in education, infrastructure, medicine and activities for the local youth. They also don’t undercut their farmers like other palm oil distributors and teach them the tools of sustainable harvesting, as well as teaching them to plant other crops that can be sold to increase the community’s economic climate. The positive effects of palm oil have been shown by PalmDoneRight, by going above and beyond the highest RSPO certification.
Palm oil is a complex topic- it is not black and white. There are both positives and negatives in this ever-evolving industry. The responsibility falls on buyers to understand how specific brands are tackling this problem, by demanding brand transparency. The harvesting of palm oil can destroy the environment, but it doesn’t have to. It can help communities and the economy in these supplying countries which can assist in humanitarian efforts. The RSPO is a great start, but it is only a start. Using palm oil sustainably is possible, we just need to demand the mass implementation of these standards.
Here at Heavenly Street, we have put great care into making sure the Palm oil in our soaps is as ethically sourced as possible. We are proud to use PalmDoneRight Palm oil. We want to prove that it is possible to create an environmentally sustainable product using palm oil.