It’s fairly impossible in the midst of the Christmas adverts and the Brexit announcements to have missed the plight of the orang-utans. Prior to last week, I was vaguely aware that palm oil was a bad thing and I should probably do something about it. Now it’s something at the forefront of my mind and something that I, and society, can’t ignore.
My social media is full of messages to boycott palm oil, but it’s not a bandwagon I could jump on without doing some research and asking some questions. Boycotting is a powerful tool to implement change and to push companies and governments to amend practices. But before you boycott you must know what change you’re trying to achieve and what the alternative option is. Boycotting can also be dangerous. It’s far too easy to jump on a cause and boycott something without understanding the impact to people’s lives, jobs and our environment. We have to be sure that the end result is achievable and worth the sacrifices involved.
I’m not an environmentalist, I waste more than I should and it’s often not a top priority when I’m buying things. I’d love to be one of those people who decides to turn vegan, reduce their carbon footprint or go plastic free. But I’m realistic and I don’t want to set myself up to fail. I like dairy products too much and my late night insomnia-fuelled shopping habits are unlikely to change anytime soon. However, there’s always more I can do. This year I’ve given up buying shampoo bottles and swapped to shampoo bars, which are cheaper and just as good; I’ve stopped using plastic bags for fresh fruit and veg and I’ve joined Olio (www.olioex.com) to reduce my food waste and pass on excess food in my local community. Small changes but all in the right direction.
So is giving up palm oil the next step? Iceland seem to think so. Well done to them for creating such a hard hitting advert. For creating discussion and impacting change. They’ve made a commitment to remove palm oil and I’m relieved to see the replacement oils in their own brand products are sustainable.
But here’s the problem: they’ve only given us half the message. The answer to the problem is not to read every item of packaging in the supermarket to avoid all mentions of palm oil. What we need to be doing is buying from firms that use sustainable oils, and that is largely still palm oil, and lobbying the big companies who aren’t doing it to make radical changes to their practice.
My new found research tells me that by boycotting palm oil, we will push suppliers to make more sunflower, soya and rapeseed oil. Great. Problem solved. Except that all these plants require more hectares to grow the crops then palm oil. This means more destruction of forests and natural habitats to make space to grow unsustainable oils that cause more damage than palm oil. Effectively, by boycotting palm oil we risk increasing deforestation and exacerbating the problem people are trying to solve.
The message missing from the advert, is that the choice shouldn’t be “no palm oil” but instead to purchase products using “sustainable palm oil”. This is a certification given to products following high standards around palm oil production. It’s easy to find a list of companies purchasing palm oil in this way, I for one am relieved that Walker’s shortbread is on there.
So don’t boycott without thinking it through. By all means boycott and lobby the companies using unsustainable palm oil and buy consciously from those committed to sustainable oils. Change in corporations will happen if people take action and make conscious decisions that affect profits and the good news is that these sustainable brands are mainstream. So let’s put our money where our outrage is and invest in those who’ve already switched to the sustainable options.
Reducing my own waste and contribution to climate decline is something I strive to be better at. I want my children growing up knowing the orang-utans are safe in their habitat and that we all can make a difference to achieving that in the right way. But a complete boycott or ban of palm oils is a misleading and damaging message we all need to avoid. Let’s not forget the orang-utans and the palm oil crisis, but lets also make sure our actions are directed at the suppliers and manufacturers who need to change their practice.