At this point, I think nearly all of Britain, and a lot of the global community, has seen the Iceland advert. Originally made by Greenpeace, the short highlights the threat of palm oil to orangutans, and was banned from tv tor being ‘too political’. In the wake of this it was shared wildly on social media, and has now reached over 30 million views.

For many it was the first time they’d heard about palm oil, or the widespread destruction it is causing. But the world of palm oil is complex and hard to navigate, and it can be hard to know what we can or should do about it. So today I’m here to simplify it for you.

What is palm oil?

Palm oil is a type of vegetable oil, just like sunflower oil. It’s extracted from the fruits of trees called African oil palms, that were once native to west and south west Africa, but were introduced to Indonesia and Malaysia in the 19th and 20th centuries and can also be found in the Americas. These trees grow naturally in tropical rainforest areas, but are also planted and farmed specifically to produce palm oil, both on huge plantations and smaller family farms. Around 90% of the world’s palm oil is produced in Malaysia and Indonesia; overall Indonesia is the largest producer and exporter of palm oil in the world, producing 35 million tonnes of the oil per year and rising. Indonesia’s oil palm plantations alone already cover nine million hectares, an area the size of the state of Maine.

The thing about palm oil is that’s it’s absolutely everywhere. More than 50% of packaged supermarket products contain palm oil, and it’s in nearly everything including shampoo, lipstick, bread, chocolate, detergent and more. The reason for this is because it’s a low-cost resource and an incredibly efficient crop. A lot more palm oil can be produced per area of land when compared to other oil crops like soybean or coconut, and it requires less pesticides and fertilisers. It’s also a very stable oil with less trans fatty acids, and this knowledge prompted many companies to modify their product formulas to include palm oil, and therefore to move away from animal products or fatty hydrogenated vegetable oils.

Basically, there was a time when palm oil didn’t dominate our lives, but that time was pre-1950s.

What damage is it causing?

A lot. The trees palm oil comes from need a rainforest climate of high humidity and temperatures plus a lot of land, meaning that rainforest is cleared, often burned, in order to make room to establish palm plantations. A 2007 United Nations report names palm oil plantations as the leading cause for rainforest destruction in Malaysia and Indonesia, while newer reports suggest that 98% of the forest will be destroyed by 2022.

There are, of course, multiple problems with this kind of forestry clearance. The massive destruction of habitats for animals such as orangutans and sumatran tigers is what the Iceland advert has focused on, but these animals that are viewed as mere inconveniences aren’t just left homeless, they are literally killed in order to be removed.

‘According to the Centre for Orangutan Protection (COP), at least 1,500 orangutans were clubbed to death by palm oil plantation workers in 2006 alone.’ (source)

Deforestation also results in overall biodiversity loss, as oil palm monocultures contain nothing close to the richness and variety of animals and plants found in the rainforest. Clearing rainforest land also emits massive amounts of CO2; the most valuable trees are cut down, while the rest are cleared by burning. And if the forest is on peatland (as it is in most of Indonesia), the land is drained. Peatlands store huge amounts of carbon, and the conversion of one hectare of peatland rainforest can release up to 6,000 tons of CO2. At the same time the planting of oil palms can lead to soil pollution, erosion, and water contamination.

Slavery in the supply chain

‘Many of the costs have been borne by workers and communities. Social conflicts between local people and plantation companies – including many owned by major traders – are widespread, brutal and unresolved. Nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) and unions report that even plantations that have been certified as ‘sustainable’ often show signs of child labour and forced labour.’ (source)

It’s not just animals and the environment, people are being directly hurt too. Plantations are often established without consulting those who live in the forest or depend on the land. In Indonesia, where 45 million people live in forests, the palm oil industry is responsible for an estimated 5,000 land and human rights conflicts. Those who resist are often forcibly displaced, as they don’t legally hold rights to the land. Those living nearby are also affected: by air pollution from forest fires, contaminated water sources, increased landslides and floods without rainforest protection, and loss of livelihoods as the rainforest acts as a natural source of food and water.

But, even beyond this, one of the worst parts of palm oil production is the mass prevalence of slavery.

Amnesty International released a major report into slavery and palm oil production, and it makes for sobering reading. The report investigates both labour exploitation on plantations in Indonesia that provide palm oil to Wilmar, the world’s largest processor and merchandiser of palm and lauric (palm kernel) oils which controls over 43% of the global palm oil trade, and traces Wilmar’s palm oil to a range of consumer goods that it’s used for. They found individuals on these plantations working 12 hours a day, seven days a week, for below the legal minimum wage. These workers would only be able to earn the minimum wage by working over normal hours and in excess of overtime limits set out by Indonesian law, the ILO has deemed that this amounts to forced labour. Every plantation was found to have severe human rights abuses and slavery.

In order to meet targets and avoid penalties, including randomly being denied their wages, workers on each plantation Amnesty investigated also said they received help from both their spouses and children.

‘Some children started working from the age of eight years onwards and all were below 15 years of age. Most of the children help their parents in the afternoons, after attending school, and on weekends and holidays. However, some children have dropped out of schools and work for all or most of the day. Children carry heavy loads, as they have to carry sacks of loose fruits and some transport wheelbarrows full of heavy palm fruit bunches over uneven terrain and narrow bridges. They run the risk of injuries from repetitive movements, carrying heavy loads and from working in an environmental where they are exposed to chemicals.’

The palm oil industry is also an environment rife with discrimination against women. Women are often hired as casual daily labourers and consistently denied permanent employment with benefits like health insurance and pensions. Workers in plant maintenance units are almost all women, and are always kept as casual employees even after working for years in the same job. Most harvesters, who are always men, are employed on permanent contracts.

The pesticide problem

Amnesty’s report also discussed how palm oil plantations use an array of pesticides and herbicides, alongside large amounts of fertilisers to improve yield, that environmental organisations have highlighted as high risk when it comes to contaminating other crops, soil, and groundwater.

In particular Amnesty looked at a herbicide known as paraquat dichloride (paraquat); a highly toxic chemical which is banned in the EU and many other countries, and poses severe health risks. In Indonesian law paraquat is only meant to be used by those who have been trained and certified in its application, however Amnesty International found the herbicide being used by Wilmar’s suppliers.

‘In 2008 Wilmar committed to phasing out the use of paraquat in its operations and stated that it had done so by 2011. It required its suppliers to stop using paraquat by the end of 2015. Amnesty International researchers found evidence of the use of paraquat-based herbicides by Wilmar’s suppliers, in particular SPMN. The RSPO certification assessment of SPMN undertaken in July 2015 confirmed that the company used paraquat but stated that the estate management had plans to reduce its usage. Researchers confirmed, however, through recent photographs taken in October 2016 and interviews that SPMN continues to use paraquat’

Some of these suppliers also didn’t provide equipment such as masks, gloves or goggles to workers. These workers who had to deal with or spray these chemicals didn’t have information on them or their health risks, and Amnesty documented several cases of severe injuries caused by coming into contact with toxic chemicals.

So, in summary, almost 50% of palm oil produced has slavery in the supply chain and poses severe risks to health, habitats and wildlife.

What do we do?

Honestly, it’s a tricky one. Before I get to what choices you might want to make around palm oil consumption, let’s first focus on recognising the darn thing. Palm oil can be transformed into over 200 different ingredients, and is therefore labelled under a whole variety of names. You can find a master list of these ingredients here. This list is, of course, absolutely ridiculous and almost impossible to implement into our lives and purchasing, so the magazine Selva Beat have put together a really useful guide to identifying ingredients that may be palm oil hiding behind another name.

This mislabelling was something Iceland recognised when they made their decision to make their own products palm oil free:

‘Only a few manufacturers – mostly in the organic sector – label their products as containing palm oil and palm fat. Most companies disguise it, referring to it as “vegetable oils and fats”.

“Until such a time as there is genuinely sustainable palm oil that contains zero deforestation, we are saying no to palm oil,” explained Richard. “We think it’s the right thing to do.”‘ (source)

So the question here is, why did Richard say this? Why not make the switch to certified sustainable palm oil?

The problems with sustainable palm oil

In 2004 WWF established a group called the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, creating an RSPO certification which is meant to ensure fair conditions for workers, respect of land rights, protection of wildlife and primary forests, and reduced pollution. However, it seems like a lot of so-called sustainable palm oil may be BS.

Here’s what Amnesty International had to say in their report:

‘Archer Daniels Midland Company (ADM) purchases palm oil from mills that are supplied by plantations where Amnesty International documented severe labour rights abuses. Agrupación de Fabricantes de Aceites Marinos (AFAMSA), Colgate-Palmolive, Elevance Renewabe Sciences, The Kellogg Company (Kellogg’s), Nestlé and Reckitt Benckiser are sourcing palm oil from refineries where the palm oil has been directly supplied or, at the very least, been mixed with palm oil produced on plantations where there are severe labour rights abuses. It is highly likely that Unilever and Procter & Gamble, who confirmed that they source from Wilmar’s Indonesian operations are sourcing palm oil from refineries where the palm oil has been directly supplied or, at the very least, been mixed with palm oil produced on plantations where there are severe labour rights abuses. All but one of these firms are members of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, and claim they use “sustainable palm oil” on their websites or product labels. None of the companies Amnesty International contacted denied that the abuses were taking place, but neither did they provide any examples of action taken to deal with labour rights abuses in Wilmar’s operations. As buyers of Wilmar’s oil, these companies have a responsibility to ensure their supply chain is free from abuses such as child labour and forced labour.

The RSPO has criteria for what it considers to be sustainable palm oil – that is oil produced without exploiting workers, without deforestation and without environmental and social harm. Wilmar and most of its buyers place great reliance on its membership and certification by the RSPO as proof of due diligence and respect for human rights. Amnesty International’s investigation reveals that the RSPO is acting as a shield which deflects greater scrutiny of Wilmar’s and other companies’ practices. The implementation and monitoring of the RSPO criteria are extremely weak and based on a superficial assessment system. Amnesty International also found that the companies that buy from Wilmar overly rely on the RSPO certification system, especially for checking conditions at the plantation level. Three of the five palm growers that Amnesty International investigated are certified as producing “sustainable” palm oil under the RSPO, despite the severe abuses that researchers found on their plantations. While large consumer goods companies claim that the palm oil used in their products is “sustainable”, Amnesty International’s investigation contradicts this claim. Membership of the RSPO and certification assessments cannot and should not be used as proof of compliance with workers’ human rights.’

And Greenpeace (original creators of the orangutan advert):

Palm oil is a high-risk commodity. Palm oil traders (typically corporations that also have plantation interests) continue to allow oil from rainforest destroyers into their mills, refineries and distribution systems, and neither governments nor the main industry body – the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) – can currently be relied on to prevent producers from engaging in deforestation or clearing peatland. Accordingly, brands must adopt NDPE [No Deforestation, No Peat, No Exploitation] policies if they have not already done so, and take responsibility themselves for ensuring that the producer groups in their palm oil supply chains comply with those policies as soon as possible, and no later than 2020. Equivalent policies should be enforced across all their commodities.

And Selva Beat goes on to explain the differences in labelling sustainable palm oil:

‘The CSPO (or Certified Sustainable Palm Oil) umbrella is too big. I said it. Come at me. It’s just too big and for lack of a better analogy, it is keeping businesses and egregious environmental practices completely dry, while leaving endangered animals and fragile ecosystems out in the rain. The phrase is imperfect and showing its weakness at the customer level…

Certified sustainable palm oil means one of four things, as defined by the RSPO:

This is the most desirable form of RSPO certified palm oil. It is, as the name suggests, guaranteed to be from one, singular identifiable source, kept away from unsustainable conflict palm oil throughout the supply chain. The chupacabra of palm oil, we have not encountered it yet through our own correspondences with companies but welcome finding it someday.

Very similar to the definition above but with one important distinction — this uses palm oil from multiple certified mills and supply bases. It’s not fully traceable to the plantation from which it was harvested, only to the mill at which it was refined. As a result, some argue that the inclusion of more than one mill, and little to no plantation record, means that deception can likely occur unpoliced.

To cut the cost of changing company-wide sourcing, this form of CSPO means traceable palm oil is mixed with ‘ordinary’ conflict palm oil — “provided that overall company quantities are controlled.” In fact, this process doesn’t even guarantee that the end product will always contain traceable palm oil because there’s no threshold that the RSPO promises to meet. For example, 50% unsustainable palm oil and 50% traceable palm oil, etc.

To us, this is where the truth really begins to bend. We don’t accept it as ’sustainable’ palm oil and don’t want to participate in what this sourcing potentially means for wildlife and the environment.

Also called GreenPalm Certificates. It is the cheapest option for companies making the switch to traceable palm oil and the distinction that we encounter the most. Basically, companies or manufacturers purchase certificates that in turn support the production of traceable palm oil. A large percentage of palm oil derivatives, because they do not exist as Segregated or Identity Preserved yet, are often GreenPalm.

…My main issue with CSPO — other than how long companies tend to sit at the last two rungs of the above system — is that the term can be twisted very easily. Businesses use it freely and flippantly to prove to customers that they are environmentally-friendly. After hundreds of emails about this very subject, I can confirm that this has been offered to me many times, with no explanation, as an answer to my questions about environmental impact. On the other hand, I’ve also encountered many consumers who say something along the lines of “but that company uses sustainable palm oil.” To which, I have to respond: That company actually uses nothing but conflict palm oil. The “sustainable’‘ part of the title they’re using denotes the purchase of GreenPalm certificates, which funds sustainable practices.

So, not so great.

So, seriously, what do we do?

Some say that we should boycott palm oil completely, others have argued that doing so could both destroy livelihoods and lead us to using less sustainable vegetable oils that require more land for the same amount of yield (which, I’m afraid, is probably what Iceland are going to do, meaning that buying from them isn’t going to make you a more sustainable consumer). I take issue with the livelihood element of this argument due to the abundance of slave labour and Greenpeace’s findings:

‘Palm oil lobbyists talk up the sector’s contributions to Indonesia’s economy and present it as a lifeline to smallholder farmers. In reality, the economic benefits of the palm oil boom have fallen on the handful of already wealthy individuals that control the big plantation companies.’ (source)

However, the sustainability aspect is more murky, and even the large campaigners like Greenpeace aren’t arguing for a consumer boycott of all palm oil (if such a thing were even possible). I think that the answer lies somewhere between boycotting and not boycotting, it’s about reevaluating our approach to demand.

Know The Origin’s recent blog post on palm oil sums this up really well:

‘it doesn’t help to reduce deforestation or human rights violations because the real problem isn’t palm oil itself, but the demand for it. The mass demand for cheap products causes the need for extensive amount of land, by boycotting palm oil it means it’s only a matter of time before producers will simple replace palm oil for another ingredient, and in most cases this will just be another type of oil. This switch would most likely require even more land because palm oil is actually one of the most efficient and sustainable types of oil’

So here’s what I think works best in the fight against palm oil destruction:

  1. Reduce our demand

    This probably doesn’t look like an overnight boycott, but instead a slower weaning-off process. Buying less and buying better is one of the best ways to healthily manage the amount of palm oil in our lives. The fact is we only have such an insane supply of palm oil because there’s an incredibly high demand, and so reducing this demand overall also reduces the amount that is produced. Ethical consumer has a brilliant list of palm oil free brands and those that aren’t, but get best marks (they also incorporate external criticisms, such as those from Greenpeace, of companies’ palm oil supply chains), and so I trust this list over any product that slaps an RSPO certification on the packaging. The growing use of palm oil is also often linked to the consumption of processed foods, so lifestyle changes like cooking for ourselves with fresh, local and seasonal ingredients, if we are able to, will naturally reduce our reliance on palm oil. These kinds of changes also often have other positive effects. For example deciding to only buy chocolate from a supplier like Divine rather than Mars: not only is their chocolate palm oil free, but it also is created in a direct trade, slavery free supply chain, which is a double win! If we shift how and what we are consuming en masse then overall demand is reduced, rather than simply replacing palm with another oil, which could lead to a greenwashy movement with a less sustainable supply chain than before.

  2. Boycott in the right places

    Greenpeace and SumOfUs often have name-and-shame campaigns focused on the worst and largest players in the palm oil industry. Strategically avoiding the right companies is much more powerful as it helps create short term pressure in the right places, particularly when it comes to those with the most market power. For example Unilever uses over 1 million tonnes of palm oil annually, and so holds greater power to create change. By focusing on the largest offenders, we can deal with the worst of the problem first. If we hold companies using this much of the oil to strong account, aka actually rigorously evaluating and changing their supplier methods rather than hiding behind the RSPO certification, then we can create much more meaningful change.

  3. Engaging in collective action

    We have to act as citizens, not just consumers. Talking to our political representatives about making palm oil labelling mandatory, demanding that palm oil be removed from transport biofuels, and taking part in collective activism, demonstrations and movements ramps up public pressure, but only if it done in a way that demands supply chains change, not that we simply move on to something that’s actually going to be even worse. It’s about demanding that we look at supply chains holistically, and figure out solutions that will really work, not just look good.

Overall palm oil is pretty complicated and confusing. It’s not just about saving orangutans, but about properly managing supply chains and considering every step of the process and its impacts. It’s about demanding better long term thinking, and moving as a society away from hyper consumerism that caused this problem in the first place. It’s a difficult journey, but not impossible.