Is Switching to “Green” Palm Oil Even Possible?

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Palm oil sign

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Bowing pressure from a major shareholder, Dunkin Donuts is the latest in a long line of companies to announce a shift to so-called “green” palm oil in its recipes. But some are questioning whether pledges from big brands like Unilever, McDonalds, and Nestle to use sustainable sources of palm oil really mean much.

Palm oil is popular in a wide range of consumer products, from baked goods to laundry detergents, due to its creamy texture and ability to remain solid at room temperature. Ironically, the push to ban unhealthy trans fats in the U.S. has caused a surge in demand for palm oil — a move which directly threatens Southeast Asian rainforest and fuels climate change.

In Malaysia and Indonesia, where the majority of palm oil is harvested, up to 350,000 hectares of land are cleared to make way for plantations, destroying the habitat of many endangered native species. Some, like orangutans, run the extra the risk of being killed by plantation owners who view the animals as pests. And, of course, the destruction of the rain forest generates massive amounts of greenhouse gasses – nearly 20% of global emissions.

There’s a few big issues with corporate commitments to buy sustainable palm oil. The first is that just about anyone can buy a certificate stating that a particular amount of palm oil is sustainable. The actual amount of sustainable palm oil a company purchases may only be a small portion of their total supply. It might also be nonexistent.

Palm oil sign
Photo by Mathias Klang

Surveys by the WWF have found that despite making big promises to only use sustainable palm oil, companies have made little progress on the matter in practice. In 2010 and 2011, only 47% of the palm oil purchased by these companies was certified to come from sustainable sources. Out of the 87 companies pledging to make the switch, a number have yet to purchase any palm oil from sustainable sources whatsoever.

But the bad news doesn’t stop there. The “sustainable” sources these companies are purchasing from may not actually be that sustainable after all – according to recent data from the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, only about 38% of the oil being produced by their growers can be certified as sustainable.  Only 50% of producers have any sort of time-bound plan for certification of their land as sustainable at all.

While the WWF calls this “adequate” progress, the truth is that companies like Dunkin Donuts are largely giving lip service to the issue. It’s a classic case of corporate greenwashing. With green palm oil in such short supply and difficult to even certify, it’s going to be impossible for a large company to meet its palm oil demands though sustainable sources anytime soon. Without the infrastructure in place to actually make the switch, all a company has to do is pledge to “move toward” the switch — it barely matters if they take any action at all on their promise.

If consumers are truly concerned about the destruction of habitat, global warming, and threatened species, there is only one solution: don’t buy products with palm oil listed in the ingredients. Avoid them completely… at least until sustainable certification actually means something.

3 thoughts on “Is Switching to “Green” Palm Oil Even Possible?”

  1. Great article! Love it especially since it mirrors what we’re saying on our consumer platform for action. Green palm is possible, everyone from the growers upwards knows what has to be done and we’re seeing some great initiatives by palm oil growers to lighten their impact on the environment.

    Their initiatives make it that much more important that we as final users, support their work.

    As for the brands and companies that have pledged to use sustainable palm oil, we have to keep the pressure on not only to have them actually use palm oil that we can trace but also the refined definition of sustainable palm oil that is being developed.

  2. A couple of comments: although the RSPO claims that
    “only about 38% of the oil being produced by their growers can be
    certified as sustainable”, realize that their certificates do not guarantee sustainability in the true sense. They do not prohibit conversion of high conservation value (HCV) rainforests, nor do they require reporting of greenhouse gas emissions. I think they are off to a good start but still have a long way to go.

  3. I think it’s a good step in the right direction, however small. I’ve heard of huge swaths of rain forest being cut down to make room for palm farms, but if the companies make a real effort to ensure that the palm oil is indeed sustainable and not contributing to deforestation then I think it’s a net positive.


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