The destruction of the palm oil industry has been highlighted in recent years, with plantations taking up vast areas of rainforest slashed and burned in Borneo and Indonesia and increasing habitat loss in the Congo Basin, but many people are frustrated by its seemingly inescapable presence. Palm oil can be found in 50% of supermarket products including make-up and hygiene products as well as in many of our favourite household foods. Here are some tips to help you avoid the worst of palm oil.
The first trick to avoiding destructive palm oil is to boycott corporations outed for unsustainable production. The more environmentally aware people become, the more business these companies will lose out on, effectively forcing them to clean up their act. This consumer attitude has now made sustainability an integral part of business success, with companies such as Nestle, Ferrero and Unilever greatly improving their commitments to sustainable palm oil in recent years. However companies such as PepsiCo, Holland & Barret, Iceland and Estee Lauder Companies are taking little-to-no sustainable action and are to be avoided. The Rainforest Foundation UK Palm Oil Guide provides a comprehensive list of sustainable companies and specific supermarket products to help you shop more responsibly.
Flickr | Lian Pin Koh
Once you know who and what to avoid familiarise yourself with some of palm oil's many other names, as "palm oil" has become a dirty word manufacturers now avoid on their packaging and some sustainability initiatives don't include palm oil derivatives.
There are 170 pseudonyms used to disguise palm oil and its derivatives including "Hydrated Palm Glycerides", "Etyl palmitate" and even its taxonomic name "Elaeis guineensis", so if ever in doubt look for vegetable oil explicitly specified as coconut, sunflower, canola, etc.; so long as it's not palm. If you're still unsure a quick web search of the product or contacting the manufacturer should put your mind at ease.
Another handy consumer tool is an app called Buycott which allows you to scan the bar code of a product to find out its exact contents and how sustainable it is (this not only works great for avoiding palm oil, but also for products that contain other unsustainable ingredients and those that are tested on animals). You can also look for Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) certified products, as well as products containing organic palm oil.
Flickr | Bernard DUPONT
There's no doubting the versatility of palm oil but it does raise obvious ethical questions; of course palm oil production creates essential local jobs in developing countries and is a highly lucrative industry, but the environmental damage to make it so profitable is extreme to say the least, and the industry's additional implications for biodiversity loss, water pollution and indigenous rights violations make it an industry worth avoiding.
Orangutans are one of the species severely affected by palm oil production. You can help in the conservation of these great apes by volunteering on our Oragutan projects in Sumatra and Borneo.
By Thomas Phillips - Online Journalism Intern