Over the past few years, I’ve been trying to incorporate more habits to help ease my impact on the environment. I’ve been doing research, finding fruits and vegetables that are in season locally, I don’t buy clothes unless I really need them, I declutter every so often, I recycle… But there’s one thing that keeps nagging at me: products that require palm oil. 

What’s palm oil?

It’s an edible vegetable oil that comes from palm tree fruit. It’s the most commonly produced vegetable oil in the world and is used in a wide range of products, beyond those that are consumed. But why is it a controversial issue when it comes to the environment? 

Because demand has been increasing and it’s the most produced oil in the world, it’s also been one of the biggest drivers of deforestation and has been linked to labor and human rights abuses. It’s a versatile product, cheap to produce, and has a low selling price. While it can lead to job creation and improve certain economies (especially struggling ones), the environmental impact can’t be emphasized enough. 

Palm oil and deforestation

The increasing interest in and use of palm oil has led to tropical forests and other habitats being replaced with palm oil trees. This presents a threat to the rich biodiversity, not only in terms of animals and plants, but also because of greenhouse gas emissions. 30% of the Earth’s land surface is covered by forests, and the biggest causes of deforestation, in addition to palm oil production, are grazing (beef) and agriculture (soy). 

The consequences of deforestation include a loss of biodiversity, an increase in air pollution, and a decrease in freshwater, including rainfall. This, in turn, not only affects agriculture, but also a basic human right: access to clean water. 

So, as you may imagine, a rampant consumption of palm oil based products is weighing on me as I’m trying to improve (or lessen) my impact on the environment. Palm oil agriculture is only expected to keep on increasing — but there may just be a few things that can be done about it. 

What’s palm oil used for?

Products abound, some gastronomic, others for hygiene or personal use. 

Here’s a brief list: 

Does this mean that all these products are made with palm oil exclusively and that I have to remove them from my life? Because, margarine? Sure. Ice cream and chocolate? I don’t think I’m strong enough for that. (And, of course, hygiene products.)

The good news is, it’s not an all-or-nothing from one day to the next, and while the idea of replacing all palm oil in products sounds like a solution, it’s a) arguably impossible to carry out; b) a temporary solution before another kind of excessive product consumption takes place and the ordeal is repeated; c) an idea that would lead to further financial and social strain, especially in those places that rely on its production. 

Some options

When I don’t know something, I ask around or google information. That’s how I came across the Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil, a not-for-profit organization that works on global standards for sustainable palm oil production. Companies apply these environmental and social standards to produce Certified Sustainable Palm Oil. So, that’s a good credential to keep in mind when researching companies and products. 

Another option is looking for those brands and retailers that are either palm oil free (yes, there’s chocolate so I’m happy), that are “Certified Sustainable” or “Fairtrade,” or that use organic palm oil. There are also brands that focus on palm oil free products (and there’s at least one brand that offers all its ice cream without palm oil — I can live with this). 

And as further examples, Norway has banned palm oil imports for biofuel production and the UK supermarket, Iceland, announced in 2018 that it would remove palm oil from its own brand products. 

Unfortunately, not all of these options are available worldwide, and some may be a bit more expensive than the (usually cheaper) palm oil based products, but I know I’m willing to make an effort to match the urge I have to work on this aspect of my consumption. 

Awareness and a little research can go a long way, and there are small actions that can be taken to try to reduce the production and consumption of palm oil. I’ll go ahead and make a list of some companies and brands I’ll prioritize the next time I go shopping. Are you up for it, too?