Should you boycott palm oil?

03 November 2017

Palm oil

A new certification scheme has been launched to guarantee that a product is palm oil free. At a time when customers are generally getting more conscious than ever before (at least, up to a point) about what they buy, there remains nevertheless huge amounts of confusion about what palm oil is, and whether it’s actually a bad thing.

Palm oil, as you probably know, is used as an ingredient in a huge range of products. Many processed foods contain it. Cosmetics. Toothpaste. You name it. I mean, something like over 70% of products in the supermarket contain it. Often it’s hidden under the generic title of ‘vegetable oil’ or something similar, so looking at the label doesn’t always tell the full story.

Hence the certification. It comes with a ‘palm oil free’ label which carries the image of a cute baby orangutan.

Palm oil free label

Companies may or may not embrace the new label, not least because it’s questionable whether cementing in people’s minds that “palm oil = bad” is what we really should be doing.

Palm oil, after all, is theoretically one of the most sustainable forms of vegetable oil you will find. You get nine times more edible oil from a single palm oil plant than you would get from any other source. That, of course, is why it’s so ubiquitous. It’s the most efficient way of producing an extremely versatile and useful vegetable product.

Also, it requires less fertiliser and pesticide than some of the alternatives, and it can provide employment for lots of people to help life rural populations out of poverty.

The issue - and where the picture of the cute baby comes in - is that demand for palm oil is leading a number of companies to engage in significant deforestation in order to make space to grow it - including rainforest that is the remaining habitat for the orangutan.

Production of palm oil has doubled over the last decade, and is expected to pull off the same trick again by 2050.

There is such a thing as certified sustainably produced palm oil. It’s not always a simple process, as campaign groups accuse the scheme of being slow to address abuses. But some of the big users of palm oil, and even some related companies such as financial institutions, have been putting the pressure on. 

Oil palm

For instance, recently HSBC called out Noble Plantations, one of the biggest palm oil firms, for engaging in deforestation in Indonesia. HSBC had been the target of a campaign to stop financing deforestation - and it certainly seems to have found its mark.

And in a sign that there may, just occasionally, be justice - Noble Plantations has seen its shares fall 97% in three years.

Generally, the campaigners focus on demanding that companies use sustainable palm oil. Some of the giants, such as Unilever (which owns many of the top brands worldwide) have led the charge, not only committing to 100% sustainable palm oil but also taking action against suppliers when problems have arisen. Others have been criticised for being slow. Starbucks, for instance, has committed to 100% sustainable palm oil but is criticised for having failed to meet its own deadline to achieve this.

Not that it’s the easiest thing in the world to use only certified sustainable palm oil. It requires huge investments in supply chains and it takes time. But it is testament to the power of campaigners, and the leadership of genuinely committed companies, that significant progress is being made.

But then getting alternatives can be equally tricky. Ethical soap maker Lush testified to how many problems they had after deciding to go palm oil free, finding suppliers often unable to guarantee their products were free from palm oil derivatives, and finding that alternatives performed less well in the product, leading to customer rejection and recalls.

The truth is that palm oil is not a bad thing per se. What we are seeing is the impact of industrial food production pushed to scale - which is one of the consequences of a planet where we expect there to be 9 billion people to feed sometime soon.

So it comes down to whether we can be smart enough to produce the product at scale without blundering into the worst consequences. Whilst progress is being made, it would help if consumers would be aware of the fact that there is ‘good’ palm oil and ‘bad’ palm oil, and to put the pressure on companies to make sure they source accordingly. 

Associating the whole product with baby orangutans and telling people they need to avoid it altogether is arguably not going to help that process.