What is palm oil

Palm oil is edible vegetable oil derived from fruits of oil palm trees, scientifically known as ‘Elaeis guineensis’. Firstly, Palm oil trees can produce two types of oil; crude palm oil and palm kernel oil depending on the harvesting methods. As a result, Palm oil is one of the most widely used vegetable oils and it is found in 50% of all packaged foods found in the supermarket, according to WWF

Palm oil trees were native tree to Africa. About 100 years ago they were brought to Malaysia and Indonesia, who now account for 85% of global supply. However 42 other countries produce palm oil. It is a highly efficient crop and produces more oil per square metre than any other vegetable crop. Making palm oil very desirable to corporations. 

How palm oil affects the environment

Deforestation and natural habitats

Palm oil continues to be one of the largest drivers for deforestation across the world. Equating to 300 football fields every hour. This deforestation has long been destroying habitats. For example, Orangutans, Pygmy elephants, sultan rhino, tigers and others. The impact of palm oil on the environment doesn’t stop there. Forest loss and carbon rich peat soils produce millions of tonnes of CO2. Research shows that 20% of all carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels come from deforestation.

Palm oil deforestation

Image from plane of the deforestation of a palm oil plantation

Impacts of palm oil on society

Exploitation of workers rights and child labour in the palm oil industry has been common for years, however it doesn’t need to be this way. 

Trafficking is identified on palm oil plantations in Malaysia and Indonesia. Workers have passports and documents confiscated and are not given proper contracts for their work. Often threatened with deportation, abuse and also confiscation of wages. Similarly, child labour is also a frequent issue in Indonesian and Malaysian Palm oil plantations. In addition, cultural heritage areas can be lost as plantations develop and land grabbing being common practice across plantations. Companies and private investors have no regard for traditional land rights and force indigenous communities to be removed from the land.

Children receive little or no pay and are often forced to work through harsh conditions such as:

  • Long hours
  • No access to basic facilities
  • Exposure to chemicals

Moreover in Malaysia an estimated 72,000 and 200,000 stateless children work on oil palm plantations. 

Impacts on marine life

Palm oil on beaches can also impact marine life. For example palm oil can effect marine life so be careful to choose sun creams and lotions that don’t contain it. We’ll cover tips on avoiding palm oil products below.

Why do we use palm oil? 

Palm oil is used in many products that we use everyday. It’s one of the ingredients in margarine, chocolate, washing powder, lipsticks, cream, shampoo, instant noodles, deodorants and many more.

We use a lot of palm oil, in fact 20 million hectares are used for palm oil plantations around the world. Equivalent to the size of 5 Switzerlands. 

3 Reasons why palm oil is so popular:

  • It’s great for cooking and maintains its properties under high heat.
  • It has natural preservatives which extend shelf life of food products
  • It’s the highest-yielding vegetable oil crop. Needing half the land required by other crops producing vegetable oil which makes it highly cost effective.

Solutions to palm oil

Fortunately palm oil can be produced more sustainably. Above all, this requires action from governments, companies and consumers. The Roundtable on sustainable palm oil or RSPO aims to transform markets to make sustainable palm oil the norm. The growing NGO has over 3,000 members that work together to make palm oil more sustainable. All of these members are responsible for nearly half of the world’s palm oil production.

Established in 2004, The RSPO has the objective to promote the growth and usage of sustainable oil palm products through credible global standards. 

One of the largest successes of the RSPO is the development of a certification standard, which mandates;

  • Fair working conditions and that land grabbing does not take place
  • No clearing of primary forests
  • Biodiversity is maintained 
  • Greenhouse gases reduced through monitoring of operations 
  • Industrial pollution minimised. Including carbon inducing greenhouse gases

Qualified Independent certifiers inspect each palm oil plantations to ensure they meet these standards. Reports are available online at rspo.org.

Watch this video on palm oil and the RSPO

Where to buy palm oil free products

It’s not always clear what does and doesn’t contain palm oil. Only about 10% of products include the telltale word ‘palm oil’. 

  • Vegetable oil (if the product contains saturated fats, it’s most likely palm oil!!)
  • Anything containing “stearate, stearyl” 
  • Anything containing the words “cetyl, cetearyl” 
  • Sodium Lauryl Sulphate (SLS) 
  • Sodium Laureth Sulphate  
  • (SDS or NaDS) Sodium 
  • Sodium Dodecyl Sulphate
  • Calcium Stearoyl Lactylate Steareth -2
  • Steareth -20 Emulsifier 422, 430-36, 465-67, 470-8, 481-483

Palm oil free products can be found online and in supermarkets. If you are in the supermarket you’ll have to check extra closely. Remember, approx 50% of all packaged items you’ll see will contain palm oil!

We have a great range of beauty products on GoEthical that don’t contain palm oil. So if you’re looking for an easy way to shop palm oil free products. Be sure to check us out.

5 Facts on palm oil

  • The equivalent of 300 football fields are destroyed every hour as a result of palm oil harvesting.
  • 20% of all CO2 emissions are a result of deforestation. 
  • According to WWF 50% of all packaged foods in the supermarket contain palm oil. 
  • 20 million hectares of land are palm oil plantations. This equates to 5 x the size of Switzerland
  • Palm oil is the highest-yielding vegetable oil crop. Needing half the land to produce the same amount of vegetable oil then other crops