Why should we care about sustainable palm oil in the products we buy? WWF Australia’s Sustainable Palm Oil Manager, Darian McBain, guides us through the jungle of better palm oil.
On a recent cold and rainy Saturday, I decided that the time was ripe for a lazy family movie night at home. But there was an inventory problem. Movie? Check. Snacks? Nothing. And what’s a movie night without snacks?
When I was younger, we always had chocolate coated honeycomb as a movie treat. So for the first time in years I went searching for some. I couldn’t see the familiar violet packet from my childhood, but there was another similar product from an Australian company. Unfamiliar with the brand, I read the packet, and may have emitted a small shriek of excitement (only a tiny one).
This packet had, on the front, a logo with a palm frond and the statement that the product was helping to save orangutan habitat. I turned the package over and read a whole paragraph about sustainable palm oil, deforestation and why they use fully traceable, segregated, Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO) in their products.
This kind of label is a rare thing in Australia. We ate the honeycomb. I showed the packet to my friends and even to my mother, who took the (now empty) packet home with her to read the label more thoroughly and verify that her daughter does indeed have a real job (I work for WWF Australia as the Sustainable Palm Oil Manager).
So why the excitement? What we often hear about palm oil tends to be all doom and gloom, and this makes companies loath to draw attention to palm oil in products (even if it’s sustainably produced). So it remains hidden, which reduces the ability for consumers to make informed choices.
The reality of the situation is more complex than simply ‘palm oil is bad’, so it’s great to see a company acknowledging this publicly. Palm oil is in all kinds of things, from chocolate and biscuits to cosmetics and cleaning products. Approximately 50% of items on supermarket shelves contain palm oil. But you wouldn’t know it, because palm oil isn’t listed as an ingredient on product labels. Instead we see vague substances like ‘vegetable oil’ or ‘vegetable fat’, and over 100 other non-specific terms depending on how the palm oil is processed.
Why is palm oil in everything? It is a useful ingredient for manufacturers – it can do things like extend the shelf life of products or improve shape and texture. Not surprisingly, use is on the rise. Global production of palm oil has increased tenfold since 1980, driven by population growth, rising incomes and urbanisation. Conservative estimates see a further 50% growth by 2050.
Around 85% of global palm oil production comes from Indonesia and Malaysia, with the remainder coming mostly from Africa and South America. The expansion of the palm oil industry has contributed to unprecedented economic growth in Southeast Asia.
So where do the orangutans enter the picture? The palm oil industry has contributed significantly to deforestation in Indonesia and Malaysia; continues to destroy the habitats of endangered species such as orangutans, elephants, rhinos and tigers; displaces local forest-dwelling communities; and to top it off, contributes to global warming.
That doesn’t sound so good. Does that mean if we didn’t buy products containing palm oil the orangutans would be safe? Unfortunately the impact may be worse, on both people and the environment. If we stop buying palm oil and lobby manufacturers to use other vegetable oils instead, more land is likely to be taken up growing these oils. Oil palms can produce up to ten times the yield of alternative vegetable oils, making them a highly efficient crop. If we need more land, that might actually lead to increased deforestation and species loss. If companies in Australia and elsewhere stop demanding sustainable palm oil, growers will have little incentive to care about how they produce their crop.
So what can you do? Demand that manufacturers switch to using 100% certified sustainable palm oil (CSPO) in their products. CSPO is certified against the principles and criteria established by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), developed to provide safeguards against deforestation, habitat loss and social conflict. The RSPO brings together palm oil growers, processors, manufacturers, retailers, NGOs and investors to transform the way that palm oil is produced, traded and consumed globally.
The RSPO standards are not perfect, but they are improving the sustainability of the palm oil industry. In 2014 around 16% of the world’s palm oil production is certified sustainable. If palm oil isn’t labelled, how do you know if a product contains CSPO? You have to go back to the manufacturer and ask them what they are doing about palm oil.
To help consumers sift fact from fiction, WWF produces a biennial Palm Oil Scorecard, which benchmarks companies’ commitments and progress towards procuring sustainable palm oil. Check out the Australian Palm Oil Scorecard here which shows what commitments manufacturers and retailers in Australia have made to CSPO, and the different types of certification used. Zoos Victoria produces Zoopermarket to help you send a personal message to the makers of your favourite brands to use only CSPO.
When it comes to palm oil, the power is in your hands. Demand CSPO from manufacturers and retailers, and ask that companies commit to zero deforestation. If growers follow the standards of the RSPO and buyers of palm oil support these growers by purchasing CSPO, then we can begin to halt the devastating loss of forests and tropical species associated with this popular vegetable oil.
Chocolates, Jerry Wong (CC)
Jukwa Village, oneVillage Initiative (CC)
Orangutan mom and baby, Tail Feather Photos (CC)
Cargill’s problems with palm oil, Rainforest Action Network (CC)
Palm oil infographics courtesy of the World Wildlife Fund