Not only confined to your food products. That Whole Foods peanut butter in your cupboard. Check the ingredients label. But it is also in your skincare products, lipsticks and self-tanning products. It will surprise you how pervasive palm oil has become.
“Palm oil is the most widely used vegetable oil on Earth. It’s an edible and highly versatile oil that comes from the fruit of oil palm trees,” Emma Keller, agricultural commodities manager at WWF, told Refinery29.
“Palm oil is in nearly half of all packaged products we find in supermarkets; it’s in everything from pizza dough to cookies and ice cream, as well as being found in our shampoos, soaps and even lipstick; it’s everywhere,” Keller explains. “Everything from creating the shine on your croissant to providing stability to a soap bar.”
Image courtesy: Into The Gloss
But why is this a problem?
Well, it’s one of the biggest environmental disasters of our generation.
“These trees grow best in the tropics and are highly productive, producing more oil per land area than any other vegetable oil! Together, Indonesia and Malaysia make up around 80% of the global palm oil supply.”
The problem arises when you realise that the overwhelming global demand for the tree – which grows over 20 metres tall, can be harvested all year round, and uses up to 10 times less land than other vegetable oils like rapeseed or sunflower – has devastating consequences on our environment.
The reason 80% of palm oil is produced in Indonesia and Malaysia is thanks to their rainforest-rich land and tropical environments. In fact, these two countries are so habitable for palm oil farms because they were previously home to some of the most biodiverse forests in the world. And the deforestation caused by palm oil production is devastating not just for the wide range of ecosystems but also for the Earth’s climate.
Image courtesy: WWF
“These forests are home to over 10% of global biodiversity, including some iconic and vulnerable species like orangutans, tigers, rhinos and elephants,” Keller warns. “In addition, the loss of these forests releases millions of tonnes of climate change-causing greenhouse gas emissions, and more recently has been linked to the burning of peat soils which has caused a dense ‘haze’ over parts of southeast Asia, which threatens people’s health.”
Not only the environment, but palm oil production has huge social impact, too. Much of the indigenous land that has been lived and worked on for generations is now in the control of palm oil companies, handed over by governments.
So, what can we do as consumers? Keller argues boycotting is not the answer as this can lead to even greater environmental and social problems. Instead, ensure you are buying products from retailers and brands that only use sustainable palm oil. Find out who is doing that here. And if they aren’t, write to your favourite brand and encourage them to do so.
Your buying habits can make a big impact. And, it only takes small changes.