Palm oil might be the number one controversial ingredient that you had no inkling about. In everything from processed foods to frying oil to soap products, most people consume or use a product containing palm oil every day. Found in margarines, biscuits, breads, breakfast cereals, instant noodles, shampoos, lipsticks, candles, detergents, chocolates and ice creams, palm oil is now the most widely used vegetable oil on the planet, accounting for 65 percent of all vegetable oil traded internationally.
Missing the forest for the trees
Conventionally produced palm oil entails cutting down tropical forests and draining carbon-rich swampy areas known as peatlands in order to create large plantations of oil palm trees. The destruction of these vital ecosystems devastates endangered species habitats and is a contributing factor in climate change. Deforestation releases global warming emissions into the atmosphere and accounts for about 10 percent of annual carbon dioxide emissions.
Now, there is a growing awareness of the impacts of conventionally harvested palm oil. But, according to the Union of concerned scientists, “The good news is that palm oil can be produced without deforestation—and many companies have begun to make public commitments to use deforestation-free palm oil in their products.”
Companies like Dr. Bronner's guarantee that no rainforest habitat or wildlife is harmed in the production of their palm kernel oil. Alaffia, another skincare company committed to fair trade practices, sources red palm oil that is hand-pressed in Togo from native Dura oil palm fruits. Their website states, “The oil is extracted using traditional techniques by our Shea Butter Cooperative members under fair trade conditions. We source our palm fruits from small family farms that pass Alaffia's strict internal control conditions (small farm size, organic farming methods, no child labor).”
Clean up your act
Still, many companies are lagging behind adopting a sustainable policy regarding palm oil. By 2020, the use of palm oil is expected to double, due to a ballooning population and increased consumption of manufactured goods containing palm oil. According to the World Wildlife Fund, around 18 percent of the world’s palm oil production was certified sustainable in 2014, up from 10 percent in 2011. Even the companies that have strong policies in place still have an enormous amount of work ahead to live up to their palm oil commitments. Until companies actually start making actionable changes, critically important forests, wildlife (especially orangutans) and local communities are threatened by expanding oil palm plantations.
The four most important criteria for companies shifting toward more sustainable palm oil are deforestation-free, peat-free, traceability and transparency. As a consumer, you can make choices with your wallet that support companies doing the right things regarding palm oil. While there is still limited information on ingredient labels, pay close attention to the products you buy—especially soaps. When in doubt, research a company’s website or write to them regarding their policy. And check out these sites (Union of Concerned Scientists and World Wildlife Fund) to learn more about the impacts of irresponsible palm oil use and what companies are making steps toward sustainable palm oil sourcing.