How Can You Mitigate Palm Oil’s Environmental Impact?

Explosive growth in palm oil plantations in tropical regions is a real problem.  It’s not particularly new. Short-term economic policies pursued by Southeast Asian governments in the 1970s began the trend, and massive demand increases since then have reaped an environmental whirlwind.  Palm oil plantations now cover over 27 million hectares of the Earth’s surface. That’s an area the size of New Zealand. The oil is used in foodstuffs, in cosmetics and, increasingly, in so-called “environmentally-friendly” biofuels.

As with all such issues, the problems are manifold. Work by researchers at Princeton University, working with Swiss colleagues, suggested that between 1990 and 2005, up to 60% of palm oil expansion occurred at the expense of primary tropical rainforest. Numerous studies have shown unequivocally that palm oil monoculture threatens avian biodiversity as well as Southeast Asia’s iconic megafauna – orang-utans, Sumatra’s tigers, Borneo’s elephants, and Asian rhinos, among others – whose habitats have been drastically depleted.  There’s only an estimated 60,000 orang-utans alive in the wild today. Corporations often ride rough shod over indigenous land rights too, displacing traditional communities in favour of cash crop cultivation. Forest destruction cuts natural carbon uptake by trees, and exposure or burning of peatlands threatens to release millions of tons of naturally-stored carbon into the atmosphere.  Excessive and unsustainable water usage for plantations reduces groundwater levels and can lead to severe water shortages in local or regional settings.

Bulldozers clear land in preparation for the establishment of palm oil plantations. Photo credit: Orangutan Foundation International

We now look set to repeat, in West Africa’s Congo Basin, the process which has devastated the natural heritage of vast swathes of Southeast Asia:

It is critical that this development is sustainably managed, if it cannot be stopped altogether. NGOs are already on the case.

In 2004, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was formed, with the intention of moderating the palm oil industry’s environmental effect and of promoting more sustainable production practices. While the RSPO’s rigorousness has been called into question by some in the past, Mongabay has just published a study of the effectiveness of the RSPO in protecting biodiversity and encouraging sustainable palm oil, which goes some way to putting these criticisms to bed. And there have been some recent indications that the NGO is serious about its remit.

A number of large-scale, high-profile palm oil suppliers have had their RSPO sustainable certification revoked or have voluntarily suspended it, due to chronic failings on sustainability pledges. Banking group HSBC has been the target of a recent Greenpeace campaign, following revelations that the bank was directly funding rainforest destruction in Malaysia for palm oil development. If you want an example of people power in environmental issues, this is it.  HSBC’s CEO has now pledged to cease financing of destructive palm oil companies. It’s clear from cases like these that consumer pressure is being felt in the wider industry, although corporations will still cut corners where they can. I’m aware of several in Southeast Asia which supply non-RSPO-certified palm oil, unless RSPO-certified sustainable palm oil is specifically requested by their clients.

Yet if companies can’t clean up their supply chains, they face massive reputational damage which can spill over into where they feel it most – their financial position.  So the emphasis falls on the consumer. And that’s a good thing. If, collectively, we demand sustainably- and ethically-produced palm oil in the products we buy daily, we can be a force for good. Companies listen to their customers.

Now, like most people, I’m probably somewhere between an idealist and a realist. It would be fantastic if we could just cut all palm oil plantations to pieces, restore natural rainforest and allow biodiversity to flourish. That probably isn’t going to happen, depressing as this reality may be. But we can still act responsibly, consume sustainably, and try to stop the situation getting worse – then we can focus on making it better!

Sustainability is the key! Produce sustainably; consume sustainably! As we’ve seen, that works both ways!

“Should you avoid palm oil? The short answer is no…palm oil doesn’t have to be unsustainable. Growers, traders, manufacturers, retailers, investors and consumers can all contribute to a system in which enough palm oil is produced to meet the world’s needs while the environment, animals and local communities are protected.”

WWF – Palm Oil: The Hidden Truth Lurking in Your Home

What can you do to help?

If you’re running your car on biodiesel, it’s probably difficult to ensure that, if the fuel is derived from palm oil, that palm oil has been produced sustainably. Expect a bemused look from any petrol pump attendant if you try to ascertain this before filling up! Fortunately, several companies in the UK are producing biodiesel from alternative sources, such as used cooking oil (UCO), and researchers in the Middle East and elsewhere are looking at developing environmentally-friendly biofuels from algaes. To have an impact on the palm oil industry’s sustainability profile, you’re better off looking in your fridge or kitchen cupboards. About 50% of the products on supermarket shelves contain palm oil.

Here’s a list of UK supermarkets, published and updated by Ethical Consumer, highlighting those which are considered the “best” and “worst” in terms of their footprint in the palm oil industry:

Some are acting responsibly; others not so much. Look out for the RSPO or Green Palm labels on the products you buy too.

You could also:

An International Animal Rescue worker carries an orang-utan to safety through the driving rain in Borneo, one of Indonesia’s islands at the forefront of the fight against unsustainable palm oil. Photo credit:
  • Raise funds: taking part in a fundraising event for any conservation charity is worthwhile – just be sure you know where your money’s going!  Funds donated to orang-utan-specific conservation charities are usually put to good use, but you can also support more generic environmental/conservation groups, such as the WWF or Rainforest Rescue.
  • Send an email. Easy. I send lots of these every day, so one more won’t hurt! Heck of a lot easier than an Ironman or some mud-based race, but just as important! If you or your family shop at one of the supermarkets identified by Ethical Consumer as not fulfilling your expectations on sustainable palm oil sourcing, email them…let them know you’re not impressed. If enough people do it, the message will get through!


A great deal of useful information is also available through Mongabay, a California-based environmental-journalism group. I’ve not been aware of it for too long, but I would say that Mongabay is an excellent site for environmental news, and it’s definitely worth checking from time to time. Their articles are well written and well researched, without being impenetrable.  Here’s two of the most interesting pieces on palm oil that they’ve published recently:

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