Take a look at your beauty cabinet and you’ll find palm oil to be a recurring ingredient. Not only is it in your makeup but is also in some food, soaps, and even used as fuel for cars. One of the biggest industries in the world, the palm oil trade is estimated to be worth a hefty £70bn by 2020. Improving local economies in countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia, the mass production is well known for its environmental and community destruction.
Not only the least expensive vegetable oil, it has amazing cooking properties, is smooth and creamy in texture without any weird smells and it’s a natural preservative which extends the shelf of food, which is why food companies love it and why it pops up in almost anything and everything. But it’s not all good. The huge demand for palm oil has caused major deforestation, destroying forests which once house protected species to make way for plantations. Think of the baby orangutans! Not only does it destroy habitats, but local communities are rarely told that a massive factory will be built right on their door step. Even more shocking, some people have been forcibly displaced from their homes. You might be thinking ‘ok, but all these plantations mean more jobs, right?’ Correct. But staff are treated poorly with violations to their right to fair payment, poor working conditions and other malpractices. And with India, China, Indonesia and Europe being its main consumers, it’s definitely something that won’t be going any time soon.
Before you chuck out everything you own laced with palm oil and turn up to your local Sainsbury’s with a picket sign, boycotting would only encourage companies to use alternative vegetable oils that would eventually have the same negative impact. Approximately 4.5 million farmers depend on the palm oil industry, reducing poverty in producing countries.
Furthermore, its counterpart’s sunflower, soybean and rapeseed oils require even more land for their production since the plants are slower at making oil.
But sustainable palm does exist thanks to the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). If you see a RSPO certificate on your holy grail beauty product it means that the palm oil used meets the sustainability guidelines in production. A criteria was set up in 2008 based on environmental and social guidelines which companies must follow to produce Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO). Some of this criteria includes reduced use of pesticides, fair treatment of workers, consulting local communities beforehand and safeguarding primary forests. The RSPO provide more detail on their website.
Last month seven African countries pledged to implement sustainable palm oil production at the UN climate conference COP22 in Marrakech, saying that whilse they are open for business they must comply with the principles of sustainability, transparency and the protection of human rights. An example was given of Olam's palm oil operations in Gabon which asked for local permission before hand and when offering them employment, 95% of people said yes.
At the conference, Tom Lomax, a lawyer and human rights coordinator at NGO Forest Peoples Programme said: “We need a palm oil industry that is based on a mixed economy that will satisfy food needs, their cultural needs and their income needs. Yes it will take investment, but not the extractive kind that treat local land as freely available and local people as cheap labour.”
As much as 54m acres of land in west and central Africa could potentially be used for palm oil production over the next 5 years. Here’s hoping they become the frontrunners for sustainability and inspire other companies to follow.
Feeling a little paranoid? The WWF provides an informative list of every day products that might contain palm oil, such as pizza dough, chocolate, lipstick and instant noodles.
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This article originally appeared on The Debrief.