What Is Palm Oil Used For And Why Is It Bad For The Environment?

It’s found in many food items, household products and toiletries.

As Iceland becomes the first UK supermarket to pledge to remove palm oil from its own-brand products, you’d be forgiven for scratching your head and wondering what on earth it is.

While it might be a sworn enemy for environmentalists, others will be surprised to know that this ingredient - found in a range of household products, food items and toiletries - is causing widespread deforestation and destruction of animal habitats.

The edible vegetable oil is derived from fruit grown on the African oil palm tree. Once only found on the continent, the tree is now also grown in Asia, North America and South America to meet rising worldwide demand for palm oil - which is expected to double further by 2050, according to the Rainforest Foundation.

Here’s what you need to know about the oil, its impact on the environment and which companies are cutting back.

Young Orangutans hugging in Nyaru Menteng Orangutan reintroduction project near Palangka Raya, Central Kalimantan.
Markus Mauthe / Greenpeace
Young Orangutans hugging in Nyaru Menteng Orangutan reintroduction project near Palangka Raya, Central Kalimantan.

Why is it bad for the environment?

To get palm oil, you need to chop down trees. But this isn’t just a small-scale operation, this is deforestation on a mass level. And, according to Greenpeace, it’s showing no sign of slowing down.

Ministry of Environment and Forestry (MoEF) figures state that around 24 million hectares of Indonesia’s rainforest were destroyed between 1990 and 2015 – an area almost the size of the UK. Meanwhile the Indonesian Ministry of Forestry suggests there was 2.7 million hectares of deforestation between 2012 and 2015 – that’s one football pitch every 25 seconds.

Studies have shown palm oil and wood pulp plantations are the biggest driver of deforestation in Indonesia and Malaysia, pushing many species towards extinction. One study published in the journal Current Biology found that half of Bornean orangutans were affected by logging, deforestation or industrialised plantations, with 100,000 lost between 1999 and 2015. Unsustainable palm oil is also a huge threat to elephants and tigers.

Deforestation in Central Kalimantan, Borneo.
Ulet Ifansasti / Greenpeace
Deforestation in Central Kalimantan, Borneo.

The loss of rainforests also contributes significantly to the world’s rising greenhouse gas emissions, which cause climate change. And as if that isn’t bad enough, according to Lush, demand for palm oil has resulted in land being been stolen from indigenous peoples. This “land grabbing” is highly associated with humans rights abuses and conflict.

Work on the plantations can also be dangerous and open to exploitation in terms of pay and child labour.

Why do we use it then?

It doesn’t have a particularly unique taste, however it’s coveted by companies because the oil palm tree has a very efficient crop - yielding up to 10 times more oil than soy, rapeseed and sunflower, per hectare - which is very cost effective.

What about sustainable palm oil?

Whichever way you look at it, unsustainable palm oil is problematic and we desperately need to cut down on the amount we consume. A survey of 5,000 people commissioned by Iceland found 35% of consumers were unaware of what it is, but once informed about the oil and its effects on the environment, 85% said they believed it shouldn’t be used in food products.

Dr Emma Keller, palm oil expert at WWF, said the best way to protect endangered animals and the habitats where they live is for retailers and manufacturers to commit to using only sustainably certified palm oil. This is where palm oil manufacturers have to follow specific criteria to reduce the negative impacts of palm oil cultivation on the environment and communities.

However Clare Oxborrow, food and farming campaigner for Friends of the Earth, said the scheme is open to abuse. “While there are palm oil certification schemes in place, these are not legally accountable and don’t necessarily guarantee that the palm oil used in products is sustainably sourced,” she explained. “For far too long, the palm oil industry and governments have failed to clean up the supply chain. Instead of voluntary certification we urgently need laws strong enough to protect rainforests, their precious wildlife and local communities.”

Which brands are palm oil free and which aren’t?

While people wanting to take action may be daunted by the sheer breadth of products containing palm oil, there are things they can do to help. “Putting pressure on those companies using palm oil in their supply chains, and choosing to buy fresh ingredients rather than processed foods are two of the steps people can take towards a future free of damaging palm oil,” Oxborrow explained.

According to the Rainforest Foundation, brands such as Booja Booja, Divine, Earth Friendly Products, Ecozone, Essential Care, Honesty Cosmetics and Little Satsuma are all ‘palm oil free’.

The brands it advises people to avoid are: Logocos Naturkosmetic, Avon Products, Estée Lauder, Jeyes, Molton Brown, Thorntons, PZ Cussons, Lotte Group, PepsiCo, Star Brands, McBride, Bio Spectra, Clarins, Holland & Barrett, Homecare – Brite Range, Iceland, London Oil Refining Company, Ozkleen, Revlon/McAndrews & Forbes Rimmel/Coty and Tunnock’s. (Download the guide here.)

Iceland features in their ‘don’t buy’ list, however this is likely to change as the frozen goods chain has endeavoured to stop using palm oil in its own brand food by the end of 2018. The company said it is taking the product out of 130 food lines, which will reduce demand by more than 500 tonnes per year.

In 2010, members of the Consumer Goods Forum promised to end their role in forest destruction for palm oil by 2020. However with just two years to go, Greenpeace UK’s executive director John Sauven said “they are wildly off track”.

He added: “Palm oil remains a high-risk commodity. Big brands need to come clean about where their palm oil comes from and cut off growers that refuse to change their destructive ways.”