What Is Palm Oil & Can It Truly Be Sustainable?

A figure holding some RSPO Certified palm oil next to an oil palm.

Ask your family and friends about palm oil, and you’ll likely get quite a mixed bag of responses in return.

Palm oil is in nearly everything you can buy, and historically has had little oversight when it comes to its environmental impact.

So should you avoid palm oil, and if so, what alternatives exist?

Not only does the production of palm oil harm our planet – this cheaply produced oil comes with a whole host of poor social outcomes as well.

But first of all, what is palm oil?

What is palm oil?

Palm oil is a vegetable oil sourced from the pulp of oil palm fruit – and there’s also palm kernel oil, taken from the fruit’s edible seeds.

Reddish in color, palm oil is pressed out of these fruits, refined, and used by individuals and brands all over the world; with most palm fruit oil originating in tropical regions like Indonesia and Malaysia.

Oil palm fruit being chopped up and processed by a worker.
Image by Craig Morey via Flickr

There are too many palm oil products to count, but in general you can find it being used for:

  • Foods and processed snacks, or as a butter substitute
  • Cosmetics and skincare formulas
  • Cleaning products and other household staples
  • Biofuels

While useful, palm oil production has also led to quite a few devastating ecological issues – so let’s take a look at the pros and cons of this controversial substance:

What are the pros and cons of palm oil usage?

Oil palms are super productive crops, without a doubt. But efficiency doesn’t always lend itself to sustainability. And while there are plenty of uses for palm oil, there are also severe social and environmental issues with its use as well.

Pros of palm oil

Let’s first go over the pros of using and producing palm oil, because it’s certainly a valuable product that many people depend on to survive:

Palm oil is exceptionally versatile and useful. Palm oil fruit is used as an ingredient in an almost limitless variety of products like food, cleaning supplies, skincare formulas, and more.

Containers of vibrant red palm fruits ready to be pressed for oil.
Image by OVI via Flickr

It’s the vegetable oil of choice for around 40% of the world, which means a viable alternative needs to be found if we want to phase out the use of palm oil.

Oil palms are some of the most efficient crops. The main reason why palm oil is so common in the first place is because of how cheap and easy it is to produce. Palm oil is over four times more efficient to produce than other oils, making it humanity’s most productive vegetable oil source right now.

People depend on palm oil as a source of income: The fact that oil palms grow almost exclusively in tropical climates means their range overlaps with some of the poorest regions on Earth, bringing a significant boost to the livelihoods of small-scale farmers and workers in areas where there aren’t many alternatives.

Palm oil being harvested from its fruit in Liberia, where workers depend on it for a living.
Image by OGP via Flickr

So, oil palm farming seems to tick a lot of boxes – it’s cheap, useful, and helps those in need make money, but there’s a lot more to consider.

Cons of palm oil

Even though oil palm plantations supply the world with a convenient source of calories, they do also have a pretty long list of issues that make it hard to feel good about supporting the industry:

Crops need land to grow, and as we approach various climate tippings points, preventing further destruction of natural ecosystems is of utmost importance.

So, why is palm oil bad for the environment?

Palm oil and deforestation are directly linked. Palm oil is responsible for a significant amount of deforestation occurring in tropical climates, with Indonesia and Malaysia being the largest producers.

A massive area of deforested land with a background of still standing rainforest in Riau, Indonesia.

Smaller palm oil plantations also exist, and many other countries contribute to the industry – but it’s thought that around 45% oil palm plantations in Southeast Asia operate in areas which were forest in 1989.

Palm oil is produced in regions high in biodiversity. The reason that the deforestation of these rainforested areas matters so much is because they’re home to some of the most biodiverse ecosystems on Earth. Critically endangered animals like orangutans, rhinos, and tigers depend on these rapidly disappearing forests, at a time when we desperately need to reduce the pace of global biodiversity loss.

Oil palm monocultures dominate the industry. As with most cash crops, oil palms are grown in massive, single-species monoculture farming operations that use large swaths of land to grow one type of crop.

Young oil palms growing in the sun on a Borneo, Indonesia plantation.
Image by Lian Pin Koh via Flickr

Not only do these operations require large amounts of pesticides to run smoothly – they also lead to habitat fragmentation for wild animals, making it difficult for them to find each other.

Land-grabbing and other social issues are linked to palm oil. The palm oil industry does provide an income for many people, but it’s also one that tends to cause conflict as well. It’s common to see large palm oil organizations (who can employ paramilitary groups) buying up land in tropical regions within Africa, South America, and Asia against the needs and wants of local people or conservation groups and scientists.

Palm oil isn’t very good for your health. Palm oil is high in saturated fat, which means it could put you at risk for developing various cardiovascular diseases, although other fats like butter are still likely worse. The other issue with palm oil in terms of human health is that it’s oftentimes added to products under incredibly vague labeling, and can go by a ridiculous variety of names, making it hard to know if you’re eating it or not.

You should check out this list of alternative palm oil labels if you’re interested (scroll down to see the huge list); this is also one of the main reasons I consider palm oil one of the more important ingredients to avoid in skincare.

If you’re looking for more recent studies, you’ll notice that the research itself is often even funded by the palm oil industry, or by institutions based in countries that profit immensely from it, like Malaysia.

You can easily find examples of questionable studies that claim that palm oil sustainability is already a reality, or that there isn’t a credible link between cardiovascular disease and palm oil, or even that it’s beneficial for human health – all the while being funded by organizations like the Malaysian Palm Oil Board (MPOB).

Can palm oil be sustainable?

Let’s face it – labeling can be incredibly confusing for most of our food products. It’s not just palm oil either, as other movements like the rise of organic foods, or even genetically modified crops come with their own labeling issues.

If you can’t understand a label, it was likely created that way on purpose. So running into confusing GMO labels or so-called sustainable palm oil certifications tend to set off alarm bells for most people.

And until regulation catches up with orchestrated efforts to confuse the average person, and greenwashing advertising campaigns are eliminated (if ever), this may only get worse.

A grove of large oil palms within a Philippines plantation.

There isn’t really a definite, agreed upon meaning for the term sustainable, as it truly means different things for different people, and unique context is usually needed anyways.

When it comes to ethically sourced palm oil, these certifications can be misleading or entirely fabricated, but there are environmental organizations trying to make a difference.

The ideal scenario for palm oil would be a system in which more resources are returned to ecosystems compared to what’s being taken from them, but the complexity of palm oil production makes this difficult.

And sustainable labels do genuinely influence purchasing behavior, as most people really do want to spend their money on products that aren’t harming the environment.

The big issue with all of this is the average person knows that labels are often half-truths, and this low level of trust between producers and consumers leads to people ignoring labels completely.

A palm oil worker posing with a machete and cart full of oil palm fruit.
Image by Solidarity Center via Flickr

So you end up with a surplus of products, ingredients, and foods from the rainforest like palm oil being sold under multiple confusing labels, and people tend to just give up – and why wouldn’t they?

We’ll cover these labels a bit further down, but the general consensus among palm oil experts is that there’s potential for sustainable palm oil, but the credibility of certifications and negative impacts are still overwhelming.

In other words, palm oil labeled as sustainable right now should definitely be questioned, but the decision to avoid it or not will depend on how all these issues stack up for you.

An interesting point to make is that the environmental issues may actually be easier to solve when it comes to palm oil; the negative social impacts of palm oil can be severe in some cases, and really aren’t on most people’s radar compared to things like deforestation – making them more difficult to solve.

What sustainable palm oil certifications are there?

Several sustainable palm oil certification programs exist, and they all aim to set environmental and social standards for evaluating how the crop is grown.

For example, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) attempts to certify oil palms grown under these rules:

  • Without worker exploitation
  • Without deforestation
  • Without damaging peatland (wetlands)

Which sounds great, but as we learned earlier palm oil farms can be located on land that was deforested in the past. Even worse, the RSPO has been involved in fraud and land-grabbing accusations in Brazil; where indigenous Quilombola communities claim palm oil exporter Agropalma decided to start a plantation on top of their ancestral burial grounds.

So not only are “sustainable” palm oil companies desecrating graveyards – they’re also erasing the traditional ecological knowledge of the people who call these places home.

Obviously the RPSO doesn’t have the authority to address all issues, but these are the kinds of situations eroding trust in these labels – making it tough for certifications to break ground in general.

The logos of the three largest sustainable palm oil certification organizations.

Let’s go over a few other palm oil certification organizations:

Palm Oil Done Right (PDR) takes the framework of RSPO a step further and promotes regenerative and sustainable agriculture practices that protect important forests and empower workers and local communities by advocating for better living standards.

Palm Oil Innovation Group (POIG) is another organization that works to build on existing RSPO standards, mainly through innovative palm oil related research projects.

PDR in particular appears to be the better certification option right now, with their strong focus on transparency, wildlife, and community building. On paper, they’re definitely a good place to start – but with the history of the palm oil industry in general, it’s only natural to be a bit hesitant.

What palm oil alternatives exist?

If you want to avoid palm oil entirely, it’s important to know about all the best alternatives out there that offer us a way to reduce the destructive and corrupt practices found in the palm oil industry.

Soybean, rapeseed, and sunflower oils. Soy, rapeseed (canola), and sunflower oils are all crops that have the potential to replace palm oil in some circumstances. These plants can be grown in areas that aren’t as biodiverse as rainforests, but they would require additional ingredients if they were to replace palm oil entirely.

Fields of canola, also known as rapeseed, grow in the sun.

And when it comes to canola and sunflower oil, they simply aren’t anywhere close to as productive as oil palms- although there is potential for genetically modifying these crops in the near future.

Coconut, shea, babassu, jojoba, and other tropical oils. These oils are incredibly similar to palm oil in many ways, making them pretty suitable as palm oil replacements. Unfortunately, they grow in the same regions as oil palms, and can’t currently compete in terms of efficiency.

Coconuts, a palm oil alternative, being processed at a factory in Thailand.

Shea butter and coconut oil make excellent ingredients for both food or cosmetic products due to their fatty acid profiles. Coconut is also a good example of a crop with many uses – while the plant produces less usable oil compared to oil palms, growers can also sell coconut fibers, flesh, milk, and water.

Jojoba and babassu oils aren’t edible, which means they could be used in place of crude palm oil when it’s used as a source of fuel.

Microalgae and other single-cell oils. Microbial oils, oils made from tiny, single-cell organisms like yeast or algae, are at the forefront of sustainable oil production. While these approaches are fairly new, if scaled up properly they offer us a way to produce huge quantities of food-grade oils.

The biggest barrier to these oils currently is a lack of funding, compared to the amount of money being invested into sustainable palm oil ventures.

How can you support brands using sustainable palm oil?

You may still be wondering: how can I support sustainable palm oil?

It’s not impossible to avoid palm oil entirely, but if you’re going to continue to buy products that include it – how do you make sure you’re at least buying from certified sustainable sources?

Apart from reading the ingredient labels and looking for the sustainable logos above, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) has also put together a pretty impressive Palm Oil Buyers Scorecard – a searchable database with over 200 different brands.

A screenshot of the World Wildlife Fund's palm oil buyer's scorecard database.

So if you’re looking for some actual numbers to go off of when deciding between different products, that’s where you should start.

Final thoughts

Palm oil is an extremely useful, cheap, and widespread ingredient that’s grown extensively in some of the most climate-sensitive regions on Earth.

The climate requirements of oil palms are too high to be considered sustainable, but even alternatives come with a few issues of their own – making it one of the most controversial crops out there.

Do you try to avoid palm oil in your everyday life?

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