What Actually Is Sustainable Palm Oil?

Can palm oil ever be truly sustainable? And what happens when we boycott it completely? Sustainable lifestyle writer Jil Carrara does a deep dive into the requirements, benefits  and loopholes of the certification, to help you make an informed decision on where to put your purchase power. 

Palm oil production is one of the biggest causes for deforestation globally, threatening the lives of species that inhabit rainforests such as Orangutans, Sumatran Rhinos and Pygmy Elephants. If you’ve watched One Planet, you will remember that Borneo has cleared 50% of its jungle to make way for palm oil crops – a devastating effect. 3.5 million hectares of Indonedian and Malaysian forests have been destroyed to make way for palm oil in the past 20 years. The vegetable oil is used in just about anything, from beauty products to processed foods and cleaning products.  

Last year during Iceland’s huge campaign against palm oil, when I started to learn more about the devastation, I opened my food cabinet and checked all the labels. Surprise, surprise there was plenty of palm oil everywhere. My boyfriend eats cereal (I’m more of a porridge girl myself), but I saw that the Kellogs cereal he ate prominently contained palm oil, so like any other Gen Z kid I angry tweeted at them about why they still have palm oil in their production. 

Their response? “We use sustainably sourced palm oil.” That put my mind at ease for a minute, and not having to ban my boyfriend’s cereal from the house was a plus. But shortly after I started wondering, what actually is sustainable palm oil? I set about investigating and trying to pull together all the information I could.

It turns out there is a general global standard – the RSPO (The Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil) – made up of 8 principles which producers can pledge to withhold to make sustainable palm oil. A company must have a fully transparent supply chain, they must not clear any primary forest (only active since 2018), but instead grow their plantations responsibly. They must also check the quantity of greenhouse gases that they are emitting, treat workers fairly and support smallholders who largely rely on the industry to lift them out of poverty. And of course, they must pledge to protect native wildlife. All of this is regulated by third-party auditors who inspect each plantation to ensure that they fulfil the strict set of criteria, which you can read more about here. Every five years the roundtable comes together to review the standards.

The palm oil industry is valued at $62 billion in 2016, producing 70 million tons of palm oil each year of which, so far, 20% has been certified with the RSPO standard. However, some studies appear to show that forest loss trends aren’t slowing down. According to a study by scientists from Purdue University, a few tricks and loop holes are being used by larger corporations to keep producing huge amounts of palm oil, such as cutting down an old-growth tropical forest for paper and pulp and then starting a non-certified palm oil plantation before transforming it into a certified one.

The RSPO, established only in 2004, has had its fair share of critique come their way from environmental organisations such as Greenpeace. The main issue here is that numerically, the RSPO is dominated by the industry itself, with only 6.7% members being from conservation or social-development groups. Re-structuring the RSPO so that environmental organisations and experts have more decision-making power, could be very valuable here to fight the industry-bias currently dominating the Roundtable.

However, the biggest point of concern is that the RSPO only banned the destruction of forests in November 2018, with Greenpeace and Rainforest Rescue questioning if this ban has yet been enforced as forest loss keeps growing and forest fires keep raging in Asian countries such as Indonesia. WWF, who have been working on the RSPO certificate and roundtable themselves, says that “the RSPO alone will not stop deforestation,” and additional measures need to be taken such as protecting wildlife areas, land use planning that protects forests, government and legal action globally to regulate and even forbid conversion of new land. 

Potential to provide the extra mile of restrictions and regulations is seen in the UN’s programme on reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, REDD+. Government and institutions have found it hard to stop forest loss because of the compelling economics, however revenues from REDD+ credits on preserved forests could ‘buy out’ deforestation activities. Furthermore, it will be even more important to ‘embed REDD+ within national development plans that enable robust economic growth from activities that leave behind smaller carbon footprints’.

Scientists have also found that palm oil from RSPO-certified plantations is often mixed with unsustainably produced palm oil, which disrupts the chain of custody and therefore diminishes the possibility of any transparency in production. These are hopefully legislative regulations that we will see happening globally, either by RSPO themselves, the UN’s REDD+, or potentially even food organisations in the near future.

Nonethess, the research shows that boycotting palm oil doesn’t necessarily seem to be the best solution. In Indonesia a scheme “obliges large-scale producers of commodities such as palm oil to buy a certain 93 percentage of their production from nearby smallholders.” Poor to low income countries are heavily relying on the industry for their GDP and more importantly, so are smallholders. To boycott palm oil altogether would mean to catapult them back into poverty.

It is no secret that palm oil production needs to be dramatically slowed down, because of its effects on climate change and biodiversity of these incredibly rich rainforest ecosystems. However, we also have to consider that other oils such as rapeseed, soy or sunflower, which could replace palm in food and cosmetics, usually take up way more land and resources in production and can therefore worsen the issue or simply displace it. A IUCN report states that palm oil produces 35% of the world’s vegetable oil on under 10% of the land allocated to oil crops. Director General Inger Andersen says that “half of the world’s population uses palm oil in food, and if we ban or boycott it, other, more land-hungry oils will likely take its place.” 

What needs to happen is to break the link between palm oil and deforestation through collaboration between governments, producers and the supply chain under strict regulations and global laws.Supporting products that are RSPO certified, but also organic and fair trade is currently the best way to ensure that a minimum amount of damage has been made.This also quite literally enables you to invest in these sustainability programs, allowing them to grow and set the bar higher, putting in place strict criteria and regulations working towards the goal of deforestation-free palm oil.