Since its international origins as an ornamental tree, the use of palm oil has grown to a staggering degree. In fact, almost 50% of all packaged consumer goods purchased at your local grocery store will contain some quantity of palm oil. The usefulness of palm oil in producing foodstuffs, cosmetics, and animal feed has turned it into a considerable export of Indonesia and Malaysia. Together, these two tropical countries produce 85% of the world’s palm oil supply.
As with any wide scale product adoption, questions naturally arise regarding how widely we should implement a single solution. After all, gains in one area—such as production cost or turnaround time—often hold consequences in other production areas. For palm oil, this relates to the amount of land currently being occupied and, in some cases, exploited to expand crop planting.
To explore the ethical considerations for purchasing palm oil, we will first discuss the properties of palm oil and its usage cases. This will be followed by a close look at how palm oil may never go away but can instead be incentivized to create more ethical production strategies.
What Makes Palm Oil So Useful?
As we mentioned, the use of palm oil extends far beyond cooking. It has several properties that make it a highly effective ingredient in the production of many packaged consumer goods:
- Oxidation Resistant – Helps to improve the shelf life of products.
- Semi-Solid at Rest – Keeps spreads and cosmetics usable at room temperature.
- Stable at High Temperatures – Palm oil is hard to burn, allowing for deep-frying or flash cooking.
- Odorless and Colorless – Doesn’t impart flavors or aromas to foods.
- Highly Efficient – Year-round growth and high crop output, even on small patches of land.
You can see how these properties make this oil a go-to for foods like condiments or nut butter. Likewise, any makeup or skincare product that is semi-solid lends itself to a greater use case than one built of a strictly liquid or solid foundation.
While any one of these traits would make this oil an attractive ingredient for producers, together, they paint a picture of an exceptionally versatile crop that can outperform other neutral oils on the market. However, what happens when we choose a single option and allow the free market to handle the rest?
Is There a Way Out?
When we mentioned the high efficiency of palm crops when compared to other oils, the actual numbers are staggering.
Palm oil accounts for 40% of global vegetable oil production yet covers only 6% of the total land dedicated to vegetable oil planting operations. That means that any reduction in this oil production will have to be picked up by a larger, more inefficient plantation operation elsewhere. At 3.3 tonnes of oil produced per hectare, soy is only 12% as efficient at 0.4 tonnes per hectare.
Despite efficiencies, palm oil farming contributes to deforestation and habitat loss for many endangered plants and animals, including Sumatran rhinos, pygmy elephants, and orangutans. Carbon-rich peat also contributes to global warming at a significant rate while reducing the carbon conversion offered by tropical forests.
Boycotting the oil harms supply chains while driving up wastage in other planting sectors. Furthermore, many independent and responsible palm growers rely on the income from their crops for survival. Without boycotting, what can we do?
In 2004, industry leaders saw the need for a Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil—an organization concerned with the impacts of palm oil production on nature and society.
Their certification ensures minimal deforestation, conservation of vital natural ecosystems, and the protection of human worker rights. In purchasing RSPO certified palm oil, you are helping to minimize the impact of this oil on our environment… While taking advantage of the competitive facets that have made it an attractive product for conservation.
We at Ethical Inc. encourage well-rounded discussions on the pros and cons of the products that make up our everyday habits. We believe that palm oil, like any consumer good, can be produced sustainably when ethical oversights are established and maintained.
You can shop our ethical lineup of supplements and health products. Or contact us for more information on our work. (To ensure high quality and low environmental impact in our supply chain.)
In the meantime, please let us know if you found this article informative. We are always looking to share more and increase consumer awareness within the market. Hopefully this leads to a more mindful consumer within our borders and beyond.