Can Palm Oil Really Be Sustainable?

Palm fruit

High-yielding and easy to grow, palm oil has become the most widely used vegetable oil in the world. In developed countries, it’s found in up to 50% of household products – these include packaged and processed foods, toiletries, cleaning products and cosmetics.

In recent years, palm oil has become a very controversial topic. Most people are now aware of the related environmental issues, which include the destruction of vast swathes of rainforest for palm oil plantations and the consequent habitat destruction of creatures like the orang-utan and Sumatran tiger. In addition, the burning of these forests releases large quantities of CO2 into the atmosphere, as does draining peat lands for plantations. This has made Indonesia, which is the world’s largest producer of palm oil, the third-greatest emitter of greenhouse gases after the USA and China.

The rights of indigenous people who live in the rainforest are also infringed upon due to the production of palm oil. Since they have no legal rights to the land they inhabit, it can simply be taken from them by the palm oil industry.

As a result, many people now boycott palm oil. In the vegan community, some hold the view that palm oil, despite being plant-based, can’t be considered vegan because of the animals harmed by deforestation.

Over 90% of orang-utan habitat has been destroyed by the clearing of rainforest for palm oil plantations

As a result of this controversy, many companies now state that they use sustainable palm oil which doesn’t contribute towards rainforest destruction. But is this genuinely friendlier towards animals and the planet, or is it just another form of greenwashing?

Can Palm Oil Really Be Sustainable?


First, let’s look at what ‘sustainable’ actually means. The main certification standard is that of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).  To be certified, growers must abide by certain principles relating to the environment, consideration of employees and development of new plantations. 18% of palm oil is now RSPO-certified.

Many, including Greenpeace, have criticised this standard for not going far enough to prevent deforestation. Most concerningly, it doesn’t forbid putting palm oil plantations on peatlands and cleared secondary forests. Although some RSPO-certified growers go over and above the minimum requirements for certification, groups such as the Center for Orangutan Protection claim that others are still destroying forest which is home to endangered species.

The RSPO’s progress has been criticised for being far too slow. Companies have been accused of joining it to give the illusion of sustainability whilst making little effort to change their suppliers’ practices. The RSPO is a multi-stakeholder organisation, and the difficulty of getting all stakeholders to agree is thought to be hindering its progress. This problem is exacerbated by the diversity of the stakeholders – they range from farmers and non-profit organisations to corporations and governments.

There’s concern that demand for sustainable palm oil is coming almost exclusively from developed countries, which account for a very small fraction of the market. Much of the demand for palm oil comes from Asia, where consumers aren’t yet concerned about sustainability. Even WWF, one of the RSPO’s founders, admits that a worldwide shift towards sustainability won’t happen until major Chinese and Indian corporations make the switch to sustainable palm oil.

Many point out that oil palm is an exceptionally high-yielding crop which can produce up to ten times more oil per hectare than the next-best alternatives. If palm oil was replaced with another kind of vegetable oil, even more land would be needed to produce the same amount of oil. This could potentially lead to yet more deforestation.

Considering the vast areas of rainforest that have already been destroyed to grow crops like corn and soya (mainly for livestock feed), this is an alarming prospect. Many argue that we should thus buy products containing certified sustainable palm oil rather than boycotting it altogether, especially as so many small farmers are reliant on it for income.

Some believe that it will be impossible to sustainably meet growing demand for palm oil unless yields are increased even further on existing plantations. Currently, it’s easier for producers to expand their plantations than to increase their yields. It’s been proposed that this problem should be tackled by paying landowners to keep rainforest intact.

I have to wonder whether it’s necessary for us to be using such vast quantities of vegetable oils in the first place. Much of the demand is driven by the consumption of cheap processed foods, and it’s much easier to avoid palm oil (and other oils) if we base our diets on whole foods rather than packaged ones.

Cutting out most toiletries and cosmetics would further reduce the number of products we buy which contain palm oil. Perhaps a change of lifestyle is what’s needed, but it seems pretty unlikely that enough people will do this to make a difference. 2014 figures showed that the use of palm oil was set to double by 2020.

Palm oil isn’t inherently problematic – the issue lies with the way we’re currently growing it. But can demand be met without hurting the environment? There’s no doubt that this is a very complex issue, and it’s impossible to definitively answer the question one way or the other. It’s pretty clear that we as consumers should avoid products containing unsustainable palm oil, but whether we should also avoid certified sustainable palm oil is debatable. I’d really like to hear your thoughts on this, so please do leave them below.



8 comments / Add your comment below

  1. As a vegan I currently stay away from palm oil. I stick to olive oil, peanut oil, sesame oil, and coconut oil. My issue with palm oil is deforestation. Thanks again for this insightful post.

  2. An article I wrote a couple years ago:
    Why Boycotting Palm Oil Is Not The Way To Save Orangutans http://www.theswitchreport.com.au/top-stories/boycotting-palm-oil-not-way-save-orangutans/

    I became aware of the environmental impacts of the conversion of forests to oil palm several years ago, when large numbers of orangutans were suddenly being reported in distressed situations throughout Kalimantan, Indonesia. These orangutans were often the victims of severe human-wildlife conflict, having been targeted as “pests” in the newly-planted oil palm plantations in the region around the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation’s Nyaru Menteng Project, who rescued hundreds of them. The graphic images of these orangutans were seen around the world, and prompted international outrage at the situation. The orangutan became the symbol of the environmental impact of large-scale monoculture developed with little regard to sustainability.
    Since that time, I have been heavily involved in the issue of palm oil, helping to initiate the Palm Oil Working Group of the Ape Alliance and the Palm Oil Action Group in Australia, and serving on several working groups to develop solutions with the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). In doing so, I learned a great deal about the complexity of the issues, and this continuous learning process guides my position.
    First, I think everyone can agree that palm oil is here to stay, whether we like it or not. It is a commodity used in countless applications the world over, and there will always be a market. Given this, I believe it is our duty to do all we can to ensure that the palm oil that is produced is produced in the most sustainable way possible. Calling for a boycott of all palm oil in places like the EU or America would have negligible impact on the production of it, as the greatest take-up is from countries like India and China, who have less insistence for sustainability. Better we develop a demand for Certified Sustainable Palm Oil, because only if there is a demand, will producers take the effort to move towards certification. And while no monoculture could ever be considered truly sustainable, I think we must consider that there is a spectrum of sustainability, and sustainable palm oil (for example that which is not grown as a result of forest clearance) is an infinitely better option than non-sustainable palm oil. We also must remember that palm oil is the highest-yielding edible oilseed crop, with yields nine times that of other oilseeds like soya and rapeseed. If we were to replace palm oil with other oilseed crops in order to meet worldwide demand, then we will have to be prepared to have at least nine times as much land given over to grow these crops. And the social and environmental impacts will be multiplied.
    Second, because we had the luck to be born into a developed country, I believe we need to acknowledge the right of lesser-developed countries to develop. We simply have no right to tell a country like Indonesia to forgo economic development, but we can help to steer that development in a sustainable direction. Many millions of people world-wide have employment in the palm oil industry, and although issues of low pay for some of these workers remain, more and more companies are becoming certified, thereby ensuring fair conditions and wages for their employees.
    While far from perfect, the RSPO is proving effective, as now over 1 million hectares of palm oil has been certified. The spirit of the RSPO is to have a multi-stakeholder approach to addressing the issues of sustainability, and as such, the RSPO is only as strong as the participation of these stakeholders. I encourage more NGOs to become members of the RSPO and to become part of this journey to more sustainable palm oil. Cooperation between the industry and the NGOs can make a real difference. For example, in Kalimantan, this kind of cooperation has resulted in a sharp decline in the number of orangutans in need of rescue by Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation in recent years.
    The responsibility for the addressing the issues surrounding palm oil lie with all of us: consumers, industry, government and NGOs.

  3. Thanks for your insights on this very complex issue. I agree that we need to change our mindsets to see we don’t need as much as we think. Are all these products and foods really worth clearing a forest for?

    1. Indeed, it’s like giving up animal products because we recognise that animals’ lives are more important than the taste of those products.

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