Part 2: Sustainable Palm Oil

Welcome to the second part of this two-part special collaboration on palm oil. The first part is on the impacts of palm oil production and is available here. Both of these posts are a collaboration with fellow science blogger Anna from Search for Science so if you enjoy what you read here check out her site!

In part one, we examined the reasons behind palm oil’s undeniable negative reputation, and it’s far-reaching environmental and social effects. Now, we address how consumer choice may or may not be an effective way of reducing these impacts of the industry.

Firstly, an important distinction must be made between the impacts of palm oil as a crop and the impacts of unsustainable farming methods. While palm oil is not inherently destructive, the intensive methods which are currently used for its cultivation are. Its effects include the deforestation of half of Borneo in just 20 years (Rosner, 2018), exploiting millions of underpaid workers (Balch, 2013) and pushing endemic species such as Sumatran Tigers and Rhinos to the brink of extinction for profit (Tan, 2009).

However, the alternatives to palm oil are not necessarily any better: switching to rapeseed oil would cause 5x the deforestation, exploitation and extinction for the same amount of oil. And if we switch to soya, this figure would increase by ten times (Balch, 2013). This essay, therefore, aims at investigating what can be done by consumers and industries during both production and consumption of palm oil products.


One of the most popular ways of minimising the damage caused by palm oil farming is to completely boycott all products which contain it. This is no mean feat, considering that one in ten supermarket products contain it (Nianias, 2014). The theory goes that by boycotting palm oil, the demand for it is reduced, therefore its supply will reduce in turn, as there is no longer an established market to sell it. A series of interviews were conducted by The Guardian in 2015 to find out more about the reasons behind boycotting – the most popular being associated with minimising habitat destruction and deforestation, with a particular focus on orangutan habitat. Others also cited the problems associated with heavily processed food in general, though these health concerns were outweighed greatly by the environmental ones (Balch, 2015).

In spite of this, boycotting is fundamentally flawed. There are a number of reasons for this, which all centre on the idea that demand for palm oil is not affected solely by consumer choice – boycotting palm oil just encourages manufacturers to use alternative types of oil, which as above mentioned are no better in terms of environmental impacts (The Green Vegan, 2018). These alternatives may also be derived from animal products, which is not only problematic for those who do not consume meat but is a whole new ball game in terms of animal ethics and environmental impacts (see Anna’s post on veganism). 

Palm oil can also be effectively “hidden” in labels. There are 436 different names that can include palm oil as an ingredient, such as vague terms like ‘vegetable oils’ or ‘cocoa butter substitute’ (Hunt, 2019). EU legislation passed in 2014 attempted to rectify this and ruled that food items containing palm oil must be clearly labelled as such. However, this change still doesn’t ensure transparency as palm-oil derivatives and palm oil in non-food items can still go unexposed (Hunt, 2019). For example, palm oil is commonly used in the production of sodium lauryl sulphate (SLS). SLS is used as a foaming agent in the majority of soaps and shampoos available today (Robers, 2019).

“Finding a suitable palm-free SLS is challenging not only because there isn’t a large market but, when found, it often doesn’t work or the manufacturer doesn’t follow our non-animal testing policy,”

Mark Rumbell, Ethical Buyer for LUSH Cosmetics
Image: Nina A. J. G. (CC BY-ND 2.0)

A number of palm oil alternatives have been explored. But moving away from palm oil should not be ruled out altogether, thanks to scientific innovation. The development of new, algal-based oils may have the potential to be used in foods and in fuels. For example, Solazyme is a company in California, USA, which has developed an algal-based fuel which has already been used to power US Navy ships and aeroplanes (Kodas, 2014). These novel products may have the potential to reduce the demand for palm oil, but then again, they are not used as readily and are probably not as well trusted by consumers.

Instead of boycotting, it has been suggested that the best way to reduce the impacts of palm oil is to tackle production and farming. Farming palm oil in a more holistic, sustainable way could have a powerful positive impact on everything from alleviating rural poverty in Malaysia (Basiron, 2004), to facilitating a switch from fossil fuels to biodiesels (Tan, 2009). In fact, research into sustainable palm oil production rose dramatically in the period between 2004 and 2013, showing the strong will of the scientific community in improving our understanding of palm oil production and rising to meet its challenges (Hansen, 2015). One way which is heavily supported is through the use of policy and certification.

Policy change and sustainable certification

Recently there has been a rapid increase in zero-deforestation commitments from big companies, which have allowed the customer greater trust that their product and its ingredients have been sourced sustainably. In fact, by 2017 there were 447 companies which made a total of 760 such commitments, to reduce the destruction of rainforests in Sumatra, Brazil and West Africa (Riley, 2017). As well as this, a study by Bateman et al. (2010) found that customers are more likely to spend money on a product which is linked to the conservation of a particular charismatic species. These so-called “green markets” work by allowing those living in wealthier nations to pay higher prices for goods produced in a more sustainable way, often for the benefit of flagship species (Bateman et al., 2010). In some cases, the use of images of animals, such as tigers, makes eco-labelling more effective at raising conservation funds, which could be applied to restoring habitats disturbed by palm oil production.

“Western consumers are willing to pay a significant premium for products using palm oil grown in a manner that reduces its impacts on such species”

Bateman et al., 2010

This method presents an interesting way to promote the sustainable growing and farming of palm oil for the protection of species and their habitats. However, a number of questions remain: Where will the money go, and how will it be ensured that it is used for the purpose it was promised for? And at what point is a premium on the price of a good too much, so that it deters consumers rather than encourages them? These are important factors which need to be considered in order to make this technique as beneficial as possible. Certification is a successful way of making a price premium work and has been done already for fairtrade items (see our post about Fairtrade). As well as this, the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) has created a system whereby palm oil can be certified as sustainable according to a range of criteria.

Certification and the RSPO

Image: Aul Rah (CC BY 2.0)

The RSPO was set up in 2004 and comprises environmental charities and non-profits, as well as palm oil production companies. The purpose of this committee is to minimise the most severe damage caused by oil palm, including illegal deforestation, chemical pollution, water loss and poor employment conditions (Balch, 2013), by encouraging sustainable practice. Members and partners of the RSPO can have their products certified as sustainable, as long as they meet a long list of criteria, regarding workers wages, health and safety regulations and environmental mitigations. 

“RSPO certified oil palm growers are audited by an independent, accredited certification body that verifies that production processes adhere to the RSPO Principles and Criteria (P&C), a robust set of stringent social and environmental guidelines that they must follow.”

Fay Richards, Global Communications Manager for Europe and Africa at the RSPO

However, the RSPO notes that only 19% of global palm oil produced is certified sustainable, according to their criteria. And in most cases, certification adds a premium to the price of the oil, which is so high as to deter buyers and push them towards the uncertified products. What’s worse, is that palm oil production is still, on the whole, plagued by poor working conditions; specifically, minimum wages and poor health and safety for workers (of which there are 3.7 million in Malaysia and Indonesia alone) (Balch, 2013). The RSPO itself is also criticised: Jamaludin et al. (2017) highlight generality in the RSPO guidelines and a disconnect between the best practice/industry standards and the assessment of current sustainability performance (Jamaludin et al, 2017). Some countries are concerned that not enough is being done to prevent the indirect land-use changes caused by palm oil plantations and this has led to a ban on palm oil biofuels in Norway (Chow, 2018). The EU is also planning to phase out palm oil biofuels, but not until 2030 (Gabbatiss, 2018). It is not clear what effect this will have on the biofuel industry or whether palm oil will be replaced with other biofuel sources or different energy solutions altogether. 

When asked about the phase out an RSPO representative stated:

“Phasing out palm oil in biofuels will mean this ingredient has to be replaced. It is important to consider the net consequence of replacing this ingredient, and if, for example, a move to an alternative oil will require more land and water, failing to reduce the carbon footprint.”

Fay Richards, Global Communications Manager for Europe and Africa at the RSPO


It seems that there are many ways to help diminish the impacts of palm oil production. These include boycotting, which might not be the best technique but is still widely supported, using alternative oils, policy change, certification and linking price premiums to conservation objectives. What will happen to palm oil in the future? Will we phase it out entirely, or find new ways to promote its sustainable farming for the good of both the environment and those most closely linked to the industry? Consumer choice is the key: businesses are driven by what customers are investing in, so it is down to us to put pressure on the industry to invest in sustainable ingredients. Not only can we “vote with our money”, but we can put pressure on our governments and businesses to change their practices and prioritise these issues through writing to them.

Search for Science is an environment-based blog run by Anna, a Masters in Environmental Sciences Student in the UK. Her blog covers themes of land management, conservation, veganism, sustainability and food security – popular articles include “Veganuary: going cold tofu on meat and dairy” and “What makes a sustainable diet?”. Check it out!


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