Sustainable Palm Oil

Palm oil has been used in soap making for thousands of years.

Palm oil creates a long-lasting, great cleansing, moisturizing bar of soap with a fluffy lather.

Despite its great attributes in soap and other products, palm oil has become a highly debated topic.

Worldwide concerns regarding the effect of the growing number of palm oil plantations on the rights of indigenous peoples and the destruction of wildlife and biodiversity must be addressed.


Why Has The Demand For Palm Oil Increased?

Although palm oil has been used for years in many industries, the demand for palm oil in the food industry has increased tremendously. According to Bloomberg Business Week (July 18, 2013), palm oil consumption has quintupled since 1990.

Palm oil is now the most widely produced edible oil. It is found in over half the packaged products on shelves in our grocery stores, though it may be listed as “vegetable oil” on ingredient lists.

Since the harmful effects of consuming hydrogenated oils have become well documented, palm oil, one of the few vegetable oils that is naturally solid at room temperature, is considered a healthier alternative to trans fat shortenings. The price of palm oil has increased by almost 40% as demand becomes greater.

The pressure for the production of sustainable energy in Europe through the use of biofuel, in particular, palm oil, has also increased demand. The drive for more green energy to make biofuels has added a greater push for new palm plantations. Unfortunately, scientific studies are discovering that deforestation is far more damaging to our Earth’s climate than the benefits gained by switching to biofuels.


The Controversy  

New palm groves are often planted by clearing huge regions of the rainforest without regard for the health of its surrounding ecosystems. By the way, this problem is not unique to palm oil--but more about that later!

The largest rainforests are in the Amazon River Basin (South America), the Congo River Basin (western Africa), and throughout much of southeast Asia. Smaller rainforests are located in Central America, Madagascar, Australia, and nearby islands, India, and other locations in the tropics. (Source and Picture from Rainforest Facts at Animal Corner)


Deforestation of our rainforests threatens the survival of indigenous peoples and endangered species, impacts habitat, wildlife, and biodiversity, and results in the loss of precious green space that cleans our air.

Clearing forests for palm oil production also contributes to climate change. Native forests are often cleared by burning the timber and forest undergrowth. This results in large amounts of smoke (greenhouse gases) released into the atmosphere.

Furthermore, as land is cleared for plantations, indigenous people are often driven from their land and source of income.

Many end up working in large business palm plantations where they have to face harsh treatment, unsafe working conditions, child labour, violation of their human rights, and insufficient pay. 

Something to Think About

The palm oil industry plays a very important role in the economy of many developing countries and supports some of the world's poorest communities. Developing nations also rely on palm oil as a source of nutrition providing easy to obtain and much-needed calories. In addition to providing food, the palm oil industry provides many jobs and much-needed revenue.

Those of us that have had all of the advantages of living in a developed country must recognize the right of other communities to develop themselves. The people of many developing countries are simply attempting to survive. For them, the preservation of native forests and the conservation of biological diversity is not a priority over life. 


Should We Boycott Palm Oil?

A solution to the problem of producing palm oil while protecting the environment and allowing for the economic growth of poorer nations is not an easy one. There are some who support a boycott of palm oil.

It sounds like a logical idea--if we boycott palm oil the demand will decrease and new plantations will not be needed. But it is not as simple as that. 


A boycott would result in closing down the industry in developing countries and with it their opportunity to raise their standard of living.

Although many believe the palm oil industry is only about big business, 30 to 40 percent of the total production of palm oil comes from small palm oil farmers.

In 2008, the Indonesian palm oil commission found that over 41 percent of total palm oil plantations were owned by small plantation holders. (A Report by World Growth 2011)

Do any of us really believe that big businesses will lose money? No, the greatest impact would be felt by the small family farmers and communities who can barely afford to feed their families.

Oil palms are very productive crops. They have the highest yield per hectare (1 hectare equals about 2.5 acres) and can produce up to 10 times more oil per acre than other oil crops.

This means that palm oil can be an environmentally friendly oil because less land has to be cleared to get the same amount of product. Boycotting palm oil will only create a demand for another oil crop to take its place, with even greater consequences.

If palm oil plantations are forced to close, owners are likely to clear more rainforest in order to plant other crops that require much more space. So, replacing the controversial palm oil with other oils, such as soy or sunflower, does not solve the issue of deforestation but actually worsens it. 

The second-largest oil crop, soybeans, would need more than 10 times the amount of land to produce the same amount of oil and sunflower would need about 8 times the amount of land.

The social and environmental impacts will be greatly increased.

A boycott will NOT force large Palm Oil Companies to go out of business because the global demand for palm oil is not going away!

The truth is that Palm Oil is not a bad thing. It is an inherently sustainable, nutrient-dense oil.

Oil Palms not only generate a large amount of revenue for native people, but they are generating revenue from a limited amount of land. Denouncing the entire crop is not helpful. The oil palms are not the problem, it is where and how we grow them.

The solution is not to boycott palm oil, but rather to demand that companies use and produce palm oil that will sustain our rainforests and their inhabitants. Boycotting palm oil will only discourage growers who are trying to grow palm oil sustainably.

If we demand sustainable palm oil, producers will move towards producing Certified Sustainable Palm oil. If there is no demand for sustainable palm oil, the growers will not grow it. They will continue the cheaper unsustainable practices because no one is paying them for a sustainable product.


What Can Be Done?

The fact is that up to 50% of consumer products in the food and personal care categories use some form of palm oil. From cookies to shampoo, palm oil provides a plant-based source of fat and functionality to products that other oils do not provide. Palm oil will not go away as a key ingredient! (Source: Palm Done Right)

As I said above, the oil palms are not the problem, it is where and how we grow them.

Improving growing practices could double palm oil production, while at the same time protecting precious rainforests and their inhabitants.

Since palm yields much more oil and requires much less land when compared to oils like soybean or sunflower, projects have begun to help countries and small farmers identify areas for palm oil development using land previously cleared for other crops.

There are also huge tracts of land deforested years ago by loggers that lay abandoned and could be used for new plantations. In this way, no new rainforest land would be cleared.

The answer is to improve growing conditions by supporting and encouraging the development of a truly “sustainable” palm oil. Again, if we demand Sustainable Palm Oil the growers will grow it. As the global demand for palm oil continues to increase, we believe that if both manufacturers and consumers demand Certified Sustainable palm oil, producers will grow Certified Sustainable palm oil. That is the only way to really protect our rainforests.

If there is no demand for sustainable palm oil, growers will continue their cheaper unsustainable practices, because no one is paying them for a sustainable product.

Most of all, we need a global standard on what constitutes sustainable palm oil and a uniform system to implement it.


Certified Sustainable Groups and Certifications

Supporting sustainable palm oil production is a beginning. It will help assure that valuable tropical forests will not be cleared which preserves the habitat for some of the world’s most threatened species, preserve biodiversity, protects green space that cleans our air, and still provides fair trade economic opportunities for poor communities and countries.

The Palm Oil Innovation Group (POIG) was launched in November 2013 by a group of international NGOs (including The World Wildlife Fund, The Rainforest Action Network, The Forest Peoples Programme, and Greenpeace) along with palm oil-producing companies. It now includes a network of many concerned groups, like the Orangutan Land Trust, whose goal is to support, encourage, and verify the initiatives set forth by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).

The Palm Oil Innovation Group believes in a certification system much more rigorous than many others. Their standards are based on the principle of "zero deforestation." Its charter states that “With a focus on the three thematic areas of -- environmental responsibility, partnership with communities, and corporate product integrity, POIG members will strengthen their commitments to socially and environmentally responsible palm oil production.” ( POIG stands as a strong supporter of RSPO certification. 


What Is The Roundtable On Sustainable Palm Oil?

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was established in 2004 to promote the production of sustainable palm oil and Certified Sustainable Palm Oil is now available. 

In the beginning, despite the RSPO’s good intentions, it was criticized by environmental groups for standards that were weak and unclear. Also, some companies were using their membership in RSPO as a method of “greenwashing,” which simply gave the appearance that they are a green company. Simply because a company was a member of the RSPO, did not mean they were using certified sustainable palm oil. In recent years The RSPO has developed a certification program that commits to truly sustainable and traceable palm oil production--while not perfect they are moving in the right direction. 

RSPO focuses its attention on Palm Oil production in Indonesia and Malaysia, areas that were compromised when jungles were clear cut and burned in the early 2000s. Their certification program has the scope, resources, and expertise to do good for the environment, communities, and wildlife that are impacted by palm production.

RSPO Certified Sustainable Palm Oil

RSPO certification is an assurance to the customer that the standard of palm oil production is sustainable. All organizations involved in the supply chain that use RSPO certified sustainable oil products are audited to prevent overselling and mixing palm oil with conventional (or non-sustainableoil palm products.

The RSPO has developed a set of stringent standards called the Principles & Criteria that define the practices for certified sustainable palm oil production. These standards address the legal, economic, environmental, and social requirements of producing sustainable palm oil. 

The RSPO has set up two certification systems:

  • One to ensure that palm oil is produced sustainably called “producer/grower certification” or “Principles & Criteria certification”;
  • The other to ensure the integrity of trade in sustainable palm oil, i.e. that palm oil sold as sustainable palm oil has indeed been produced by certified plantations

Both systems involve third-party certification bodies. Such rigorous certification systems considerably reduce the risk for consumers to use palm oil that is not sustainable.


How Does The Rainforest Alliance Help Stop Destruction Of Our Rainforests?

The Rainforest Alliance is an international nonprofit organization that works to conserve biodiversity and ensures sustainable livelihoods. Christopher Wille of the Rainforest Alliance says that palm oil is not the problem—it is the way it is grown. “Oil palm is a bounteous and valuable crop," he says. “It’s highly productive compared to other oils, creates jobs and revenues, and can be used in an amazing variety of products.”

While the RSPO is more palm oil-focused, the Rainforest Alliance spreads its resources into other areas, helping promote sustainable practices for a variety of crops like coffee and cocoa.

The Rainforest Alliance works with farmers, foresters, and even the tourism trade to conserve natural resources and ensure the long-term economic health of forest communities. In order to achieve Rainforest Alliance certification, they must meet rigorous standards designed to protect ecosystems, safeguard the well-being of local communities, and improve productivity. The Rainforest Alliance then links sustainable businesses to the growing global community of conscientious consumers through the green frog seal.


Palm Done Right

The Palm Done Right initiative was created in 2016 by Natural Habitats—one of the world’s top producers of organic palm oil to prove that palm oil can be grown sustainably. Their goal is to educate manufacturers, businesses, retailers, and consumers on how palm oil can actually serve communities and help the environment.

Palm Done Right Logo

Palm Done Right believes that if "Done Right," palm oil can be one of the most sustainable oils in the world, nurturing animals, people, communities, and the environment.

Palm Done Right presents the first fully integrated, 100 percent organic supply chain in the palm oil industry. Palm Done Right requires fair labor certification, organic certification, Non-GMO Project Verification, and has the highest level of certification  Identity Preserved — offered by the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).

Palm Done Right prohibits clear-cutting, burning forests, planting in virgin or second-growth rain forests, and human trafficking and slavery. This combination of ethical and ecological production practices helps to preserve the environment, native species, and native communities. It is not just another certification system, it works with existing certification systems such as RSPO and Rainforest Alliance to make them better. 


Palm Done Right and Wrong Chart


Another goal of Palm Done Right is to encourage shoppers to choose products made with responsibly produced palm oil in the hopes of eventually eliminating its unsustainable counterpart.


What is Friend of the Earth?

The aim of Friend of the Earth is to raise awareness and help move companies towards sustainable farming and farming practices carried out not only in terms of the environment but also economic and social. 

Friend of the Earth is an international certification plan for sustainable agriculture and livestock breeding whose principles are based on the protection of the whole ecosystem in which certified companies carry out their activities. The Friend of the Earth certification is issued for products that comply with strict traceability.

All products and their origin are controlled according to the strict criteria of environmental sustainability and social responsibility established by Friend of the Earth.


Chagrin Valley’s Palm Oil 

Over 30 years ago large tracts of rainforest in South America were cleared via “slash and burn” with a promise to indigenous people that they would have fresh farm and grazing lands.

The topsoil in the rainforest is very thin and with the trees gone there were no roots to serve as temporary water storage and no protection from the tree canopies to prevent soil runoff. As a result, all of the soil nutrients were washed away creating areas of barren land. (Picture from Wikipedia)

For many years our supplier of Organic Body Care products, Chagrin Valley Soap, purchased their palm oil  from plantations that have been grown on these once barren lands in regions of the Amazon and other rainforest areas that were cleared 30-40 years ago. These palm plantations have reintroduced a new forest crop which has brought back many species of birds and other plants and animals and preserves forests surrounding the plantation. While not as diverse as the native Rainforest, it is a huge improvement over barren grasslands.

Now their Palm Oil comes from many places. But rest assured it is always certified sustainable. 

So instead of eliminating palm oil, Chagrin Valley uses USDA Certified Organic (meaning it is traceable back to its source), Certified Sustainable Palm oil by Palm Done Right.

These Controversies are NOT Unique to Palm Oil Crops

It is interesting to note that although palm oil seems to be at the center of the deforestation controversy, it is not only Palm Oil that destroys our rainforests!

Soybeans and deforestation

Many vegetable oils and crops are produced in a similar method. Soy, corn, rice, coffee, and sugar crops are also major commodities responsible for deforestation.

All around the world, native forests and habitats are giving way to plantations for palm oil, soy (right), rubber, coffee, tea, rice, and many other crops.

Some environmentalists believe that the soybean industry is causing more destruction to the environment than any other agricultural industry on the planet. “To grow soybeans, vast expanses of land are needed. Production is overtaking huge areas in fragile ecosystems. In South America, almost 4 million hectares of forests are destroyed every year, 2.6 million of them in Brazil alone. This threatens wildlife and biodiversity. It also adversely affects people, the global climate, water reserves, and soil quality.” (The World Wildlife Fund)

Sugar cane is one of the major crops responsible for deforestation in Columbia. It has been forecast that sugar cane and soybeans alone will be responsible for a 20 million hectare expansion of agricultural land in the Amazon regions over the next 40 years.

Rice fields and coffee plantations are the major cause of deforestation in Madagascar--and the list goes on.

The global demand, and thus production, of palm oil, soybeans, coffee (right), and sugar cane will not go away.

As consumers, we need to demand sustainable growing methods for all crops.

We need to work hard and support organizations whose goal is to ensure that all crops, not only palm oil, are grown in a manner that supports the sustainability of our native forests, protects wildlife and biodiversity, and safeguards the lives and dignity of indigenous peoples.

We all can help by purchasing food, clothing, and skincare products from companies that source ingredients responsibly. 


This blog originally appeared on the Chagrin Valley website.

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