Can palm oil be sustainable?

6 min read

What's the deal with palm oil and can it ever be sustainable?

Look on the back of your cosmetics packaging and there is a high chance you will find it contains some ingredients made from palm oil.
But it’s not that easy!
Because of the controversy over the harm caused by palm oil production, many manufacturers would rather you were kept in the dark...
So how do you choose what to buy? Should we all boycott palm oil? Can it ever be sustainable?
How do I know if palm oil is in my products?
Palm oil may be found in more than 50% of products on supermarket shelves, but often it’s listed under a huge number of names which do not always include the word ‘palm’. This makes it difficult for us to know what is in the products we buy. Research has identified over 1100 palm oil derivative ingredient names.
Here are just a few:

Vegetable Oil, Vegetable Fat, Palm Kernel, Palm Kernel Oil, Palm Fruit Oil, Palmate, Palmitate, Palmolein, Glyceryl, Stearate, Stearic Acid, Elaeis Guineensis, Palmitic Acid, Palm Stearine, Palmitoyl Oxostearamide, Palmitoyl Tetrapeptide-3, Sodium Laureth Sulfate, Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, Sodium Kernelate, Sodium Palm Kernelate, Sodium Lauryl Lactylate/Sulphate, Hydrated Palm Glycerides, Etyl Palmitate, Octyl Palmitate, Palmityl Alcohol.

The use of terms involving ‘stear, palmate, laur’ are usually indications that the ingredient comes from palm oil.

So what is palm oil?

It’s an edible vegetable oil that comes from the fruit of oil Palm trees.
Two types of oil can be produced; crude palm oil comes from squeezing the fleshy fruit, and palm kernel oil which comes from crushing the kernel, or the stone in the middle of the fruit.
Oil palm trees are native to Africa but were brought to South-East Asia just over 100 years ago as an ornamental tree crop before their commercial value was realised.Today palm oil is produced by over 40 countries worldwide - with Indonesia and Malaysia making up over 85% of global supply.
And what’s the problem?
Because palm oil can be used in so many products, there is high demand for it and this makes it a valuable crop. More and more people want to grow palm trees so they can harvest the fruit to sell. Unfortunately, this means precious forests are being destroyed to make room to plant palm trees. The forests being destroyed are some of the biodiverse regions of the globe and are home to some of the worlds most endangered species including orangutans, pygmy elephants and Sumatran rhinos. Palm oil production is said to have been responsible for about 8% of the world's deforestation between 1990 and 2008
It is not just the biodiversity loss that is the problem - deforestation also has an impact on climate change, both from the burning associated with forest cleaning and the loss of carbon rich soils. From a wider sustainability perspective, the palm industry also needs to address the treatment of workers on palm oil plantations where concerns have been raised over the exploitation of workers and child labour.

These are serious issues for the whole palm oil sector to address in order to give the consumer confidence that their purchases of palm oil containing products are not contributing to global problems.

Shouldn’t we just boycott it?
The simple answer is no.
We all want and need products that require some sort of vegetable oil - cosmetics, food, haircare, etc. If we boycott palm oil, we will need to substitute it for other vegetable oils - like soybean or coconut oil.
Palm oil is an incredibly efficient crop: we are able to produce more palm oil per acre compared to any other vegetable oil crop. To put this in perspective, globally, palm oil supplies 35% of the world’s vegetable oil demand on just 10% of the land.
So, if we boycott palm oil and substitute in other vegetable oils (like coconut or soybean), we would need to allocate much more land to the production of crops that create these oils - estimates are between 4 and 10 times more land. In boycotting palm oil, we make the problem worse. We still have deforestation, habitats destroyed, and species threatened; it would just happen in different parts of the world, and potentially, on a much larger scale.
We also need to recognise that palm oil is an important crop for many emerging economies. If we boycott palm oil, we deprive millions of small-scale farmers from their livelihood. These are people who often don't have good alternatives to palm oil production and so would be left without any income.
Clearly therefore, boycotting palm oil is not the answer. But, demanding more action to tackle the issues and go further and faster, is.

Boycotting palm oil is not always the answer, but demanding more action to tackle the issues and go further and faster, is.

What can we do?
Palm oil can be produced more sustainably and things can change. In response to the environmental impact of palm oil, the Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil or RSPO was formed in 2004. The RSPO is responsible for creating best practices when it comes to the production and sourcing of palm oil.Fortunately, it has the buy-in of most of the global industry, which means it can make positive steps to improving the environmental impact of palm oil.
So that’s simple then - just buy products that are RSPO certified. Unfortunately, it's not that simple - not all certification is equal.
Palm oil has one of the most complicated supply chains of any ingredient. It is extraordinarily difficult to make sure that each drop of palm oil is being sustainably produced. A single palm oil mill – there are hundreds in Malaysia alone – can buy fruit from a multitude of suppliers. All the formulations and derivatives, are produced in expensive complex palm oil refineries and processors shared by many mills.
To deal with this you will see two different RSPO logos on products - Certified and Mixed.
"Certified" Palm Oil
If you see the “Certified” logo on a product you can be sure that the palm oil ingredients in the product you are using “contains certified sustainable palm oil”. RSPO certified oil palm products are kept separate from non-RSPO certified oil palm products at every stage of production, processing, refining, and manufacturing throughout the supply chain.
"Mixed" Palm Oil
However, because of the difficulties of keeping certified and non certified sources of palm oil separate and traceable as they move along the supply chain from mills to processors, the “Mixed” Certification scheme was developed.
As the logo states this system “contributes to the production of certified sustainable palm oil”.
It does not guarantee that all the actual palm oil derivatives in the product in your hand came from a sustainable source.
The "mixed" certification system is set up to reward producers who want to grow sustainably, but have to use shared facilities where their product gets mixed with unsustainable sources.
The total amount of sustainable product put into the system is tracked, audited and certified. Similarly the total amount of product being sold with the Mixed logo is tracked and audited. There can never be more Certified Mixed products on the market than the equivalent amount of sustainable palm oil put into the supply chain. Purchasing of Mixed logo products rewards responsible growers - as more consumers demand this standard the price should increase stimulating even more producers to grow sustainably.
So what should I do?
As a minimum:
  • Check the contents for palm oil ingredients.
  • If it has any, do not buy it unless you can confirm from the seller that the ingredients carry an RSPO certification - either "certified" or "mixed".
  • Lobby the sellers to get their suppliers to demand the higher Certified palm oil products standard.
If we all did this , demand would increase, prices to the producers would increase, more of the production would move to a sustainable model - and the world would become just that bit more sustainable.

Bolt Beauty only uses sustainable palm oil.

In the current range there is one palm oil derived ingredient and this has an RSPO mixed certification.

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