Are Sustainable Palm Oil Products Actually Making a Difference?

Now that sustainable palm oil products are becoming more popular and widely available, it’s time to evaluate whether they are actually making a difference in the world.

palm tree

You might have heard about palm oil: how it’s an evil source of human suffering, how it’s destroying rainforests. This ingredient is in everything from margarine and chocolate to shampoo and lipstick, so it’s kind of hard to avoid. The real problem, though, is not palm oil itself, but rather how we get it.

Most palm oil producers have used unethical practices such as burning and clearing forests that are often home to endangered species. The manufacturing has involved abusive labor conditions and the disruption of local communities. Palm oil is bountiful and cheap to make, so there’s little incentive for companies to rely on alternatives such as coconut oil.

Because of these issues, in 2001 the World Wildlife Fund [WWF] began developing the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil [RSPO]. The organization built a system that encouraged and incentivized palm oil producers to adopt practices that were ethical but still profitable.

To become RSPO members and declare that their palm oil is certified sustainable, companies need to prove they are not destroying the environment or negatively impacting nearby residents and farmers. Typically brands’ motivations are to avoid negative PR and appeal to conscientious consumers.

Since the formal establishment of the RSPO in 2004, roughly 21% of palm oil has become certified sustainable, according to Palm Done Right Marketing Director Monique van Wijnbergen. About a decade ago that ratio was at only 3%. Most analysts attribute the growth to the RSPO, as well as similar organizations and standards such as Fair for Life and Rainforest Alliance. There are also nongovernmental organizations that spread awareness of the issues and paved the way for others to make progress, Wijnbergen noted, including Greenpeace and Oxfam.

Dozens of brands have licensed the RSPO trademark that lets consumers know their palm oil-based products are sustainable. When you’re shopping in a store, you can look for a white palm frond symbol with “Certified Sustainable Palm Oil RSPO” printed around it.

Online there is a WWF database that lists brands and rates the sustainability of their palm oil on a scale from one to nine. Avon, for example, has an eight out of nine score, while Campbell’s has only one out of nine. There is also a RSPO mobile app that helps users shop sustainably.

It is possible that the push for sustainability will affect the quality of products as well. Improved agricultural and manufacturing practices could, Wijnbergen said, have a direct positive effect on the quality of the palm fruit and thus the palm oil. Either way it’s a win for consumers.

The goal is 100% sustainable palm oil

The goal is 100% sustainable palm oil, Wijnbergen stated, so obviously there is much more work to be done. Nonetheless, organizations such as the RSPO have had commendable success in generating demand for sustainable palm oil products, spreading awareness about the issue and creating opportunities for struggling farmers.

The RSPO lists a few statistics that show their efforts have made a difference when it comes to sustainable palm oil products:

  • Between 2008 and 2018, production of sustainable palm oil increased from less than 2 million metric tons to more than 12 million
  • The RSPO supports more than 73,000 framers
  • There are 338 certified sustainable palm oil mills

It might take many more years, however, before there is a significant impact on deforestation. The RSPO’s latest estimate is that there are 3.57 million hectares (a hectare is about 2.5 acres) of protected land where certified sustainable palm oil is produced. This figure sounds impressive, doesn’t it? But these areas only represent roughly 1% of forests in Indonesian palm oil plantations, according to a report by land systems scientist Kimberly Carlson.

To accelerate their progress, Carlson wrote, the RSPO will need to seek broader adoption of certification in forested areas. Nonetheless, Carlson did acknowledge that the RSPO has had a significant positive effect on the forests they have secured.

It seems like sustainable palm oil products are making a tangible difference in the consumer and labor landscape, but the industry has struggled to save a sizeable section of the rainforest. Fortunately, the more consumers buy sustainable palm oil products and boycott unethical brands, the more organizations — such as the RSPO — can protect the planet.

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