Can One Of The World’s Most Ubiquitous Products Clean Up Its Act?


Oil palm trees are like the tree in Shel Silverstein’s 1964 book The Giving Tree. The giving tree gives everything it has — its fruit, its leaves, its branches, even its trunk — to one man who keeps coming back for more. Palm oil, a vegetable oil that comes from oil palm trees, can be found in nearly half the products sold in grocery stores today and after a decade of breakneck growth, is now fueling a $44-billion industry worldwide. It’s used in lipstick because it holds color well and doesn’t melt at high temperatures. It’s in instant noodles as a way to precook them so they can just be reheated. It’s used widely across the baking industry and is common in packaged bread. It’s often processed to create soaps, laundry detergents, and other cleaning products.

“There’s been an increase in the use of palm oil in the last decade or so for a lot of reasons,” Calen May-Tobin, Lead Analyst for Tropical Forests at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), told ThinkProgress. “It’s cheap to produce. It works well with processed foods. It is a naturally saturated fat, so it doesn’t have trans fats.”

While the giving tree offers itself in an unconditional capacity, there are many conditions tied to the use of palm oil, especially when it comes to the environment and climate change. The palm oil industry can be a major driver of deforestation, and of the destruction of peat lands, carbon-rich swamps that are drained and burned to establish oil palm plantations. Both of these practices are ecologically detrimental and significant drivers of greenhouse gas emissions; deforestation is responsible for around 10 percent of global emissions. Palm oil production also brings with it a number of labor and human rights issues and has exacerbated the threat to several endangered species by destroying their habitats.

While public pressure may have driven a number of entities to reconsider their palm oil practices, the size of the industry and pace of the growth adds to the challenge of bringing reliable oversight and best practices into the mainstream.


There’s a major incentive to clean up palm oil practices, however. Oil palm trees produce four to ten times more oil than other vegetable oil crops and if production is done sustainably, it could have major implications for food production and become a far more appealing alternative to other oils requiring more agricultural land conversion for the same yield. With global vegetable oil demand rising, this could have serious environmental benefits. Recent commitments from major palm oil companies up-and-down the supply chain have made this long-shot goal appear more attainable and raise the question: could 2014 could be the year the tide turns on palm oil production?

More Growing And More Giving

Oil palms are now grown in around 43 countries and their total cultivated area accounts for nearly one-tenth of the world’s permanent cropland. Wilmar, the world’s largest palm oil trader with control of nearly half of the market, committed to a ‘No Deforestation, No Peat, and No Exploitation’ policy in December. The company provided a statement to ThinkProgress saying they made the commitment not only due to pressure from consumers and NGOs, but because “they have seen the deterioration in the environment in many countries and changes in global climate,” and felt that “big corporates must take the lead and work together as never before” and “adjust to market needs and expectations to remain competitive.”

CREDIT: TigerMine Research
CREDIT: TigerMine Research

Demand for vegetable oil will continue to rise as global incomes grow and more processed food is consumed. With vegetable oils being mostly interchangeable, the goal of UCS and other NGOs promoting sustainable palm oil practices is not to get people to switch to other oils but to make consumers aware of the conditions that gave rise to the tree that’s giving it to them.

By using phone apps, websites and social media, consumers can influence the industry from the bottom up by spreading the word and also putting their money where their mouths are. Palm oil is a versatile, high yielding, perennial oil crop — the trees grow for 25 years or so as opposed to soybeans, which must be replanted every year — and if produced responsibly could become a success story for the nexus of agribusiness, environment and climate that will play a major role in global health and welfare this century.


Palm oil is so widely used in part because it is highly viscous and can be substituted for other fats that are solid at room temperature such as butter. It’s about 50 percent solid at room temperature, making it less saturated than coconut oil but more so than most vegetable oils which require trans fats to increase solidity. Palm oil is derived from the flesh of the oil palm fruit as well as the seed, or kernel. It is grown in large, reddish clusters and approximates the size and shape of a plum. Around 75 percent of global palm oil is used in food products or for cooking purposes, and is found in everything from Cheez-Its to donuts to baby formula to canned soups.

One way to determine if there’s palm oil in a product, which often isn’t clearly labeled, is to look for a derivative name in the ingredients. According to the World Wildlife Fund, palm oil can appear in ingredients listed as a vast array of things.

CREDIT: Andrew Breiner/Shutterstock
CREDIT: Andrew Breiner/Shutterstock

That’s a lot to decipher, and the Palm Oil Guide And Scanner app can be used to check product barcodes for palm oil.

Vast, But Manageable Environmental Problems

In the U.S., palm oil imports have jumped 485 percent in the last decade, according to the Rainforest Action Network. A 2012 study by Stanford University found that palm oil plantation expansion is projected to contribute more than 558 million metric tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere in 2020, more than all of Canada’s current fossil fuel emissions and about 1.5 percent of total global emissions.

Oil palm trees require a hot and wet tropical climate to thrive. Nearly 90 percent of palm oil is grown in the tropical countries of Indonesia and Malaysia, where palm oil plantations under active cultivation cover around 16 million acres, an area comparable in size to West Virginia. According to the Rainforest Action Network, the Indonesian government has plans to more than double the size of palm oil plantations to 44 million acres, an area closer to the size of Missouri. Peatlands, or peat forests, are deep, watery bogs found on the floor of these rainforests. They are made up of layers upon layers of fallen detritus that can be several dozen feet deep. In millions of years, if left undisturbed, they would turn into coal.


Even as demand skyrockets, palm oil production could be jeopardized in some areas by drought and other changing weather patterns associated with climate change. A drought across Southeast Asia earlier this year already has palm oil markets speculating on a shortage later this year. With increasing prospects of an El Niño weather system developing by August — which is linked with dry spells in Southeast Asia — the situation could be exacerbated.

A strong El Niño like the one in 1997–98, which caused thousands of deaths and billions of dollars in damage, could also wreak havoc on palm oil crops. As climate change worsens, El Niño years have to potential to be even more extreme, pushing the boundaries of heat and drought beyond measured norms.

Palm oil expansion. West Kalimantan, Borneo, Indonesia, 2009. CREDIT: flickr/Rainforest Action Network
Palm oil expansion. West Kalimantan, Borneo, Indonesia, 2009. CREDIT: flickr/Rainforest Action Network
Palm oil mill and plantation. West Kalimantan, Borneo, Indonesia, 2009. CREDIT: flickr/Rainforest Action Network
Palm oil mill and plantation. West Kalimantan, Borneo, Indonesia, 2009. CREDIT: flickr/Rainforest Action Network

Calen May-Tobin with the Union of Concerned Scientists led a recent analysis of the palm oil practices of the 30 largest consumer companies in the U.S. To demonstrate the breadth of the issue, the study selected 10 packaged food companies, 10 personal care companies, and 10 fast food companies. UCS developed criteria for assessing the companies practices when it comes to sourcing their palm oil. They used five criteria: deforestation-free, peat-free, traceability, transparency, and early action.

“I was really surprised by some of the results,” May-Tobin said. “The fast food sector was abysmal, only two of the 10 companies had commitments high enough to receive any points. The packaged food companies performed the best, they basically all had commitments. And the personal care sector was somewhere in the middle.” May-Tobin thinks the discrepancy between the fast food and packaged foods sectors illustrates that companies really do respond to consumer pressure. Over the last few years, public campaigning has focused on packaged food companies such as Kellogg’s and Nestlé. Since UCS kicked off their palm oil campaign last October, a dozen consumer companies have made deforestation-free commitments.

“By September 2013, 100 percent of the palm oil we purchased was RSPO certified,” Edie Burge, corporate and brand affairs manager at Nestlé USA, told ThinkProgress by email. Burge said that Nestlé was the first consumer goods company to form a partnership with The Forest Trust, back in 2010, in order to investigate supply chains and exclude plantations or farms linked to deforestation.

“We continue to engage with stakeholders to communicate progress against our commitments, including holding regular meetings with Greenpeace,” said Burge.

Creating Change Without Tree-Hugging

Greenpeace has helped lead the responsible palm oil-charge by staging very public protests at the headquarters of major palm oil-using companies like Unilever. They’ve dressed up as orangutans, the poster animal of the sustainable palm oil movement — like the polar bear, an oft-used symbol for climate change, the orangutan’s habitat is quickly disappearing due to human activity. Greenpeace members recently infiltrated one of Procter & Gamble’s 17-story headquarters in downtown Cincinnati and unveiled 60-foot-tall banners denouncing the shampoo Head & Shoulders for “putting tiger survival on the line” and “wiping out dandruff & rainforests.”

In April, Procter & Gamble pledged to use 100 percent deforestation-free palm oil by 2020.

At least one of the Procter & Gamble infiltrators was wearing a tiger costume to represent the plight of the endangered Sumatran tiger, of which only about 400 remain, in the face of palm oil plantation expansion. However, as reported in a long Business Insider article on the history of Greenpeace, the tiger is really just a memorable placeholder for the global threat of climate change.

“It’s easy to say, ‘If you’re destroying forests, you’re destroying tiger habitats,’” Phil Radford, the outgoing executive director of Greenpeace USA, told Business Insider. “It’s harder to say, ‘Do you know that forests store carbon and if we save the peat bogs we will trap all this carbon and methane in the soil?’ We say both, but we start with the place that people are, the thing they care about the most first.”

It’s a strategy that seems to be working, at least in the palm oil sector.

“There’s a definite domino effect happening,” May-Tobin said. “Now over 50 percent of palm oil that is traded is committed to being deforestation-free by 2015.”

CREDIT: flickr/greenpeace switzerland
CREDIT: flickr/greenpeace switzerland

What It Really Means To Commit

Commitments are really just the first step in a string of changes that need to happen to mitigate the negative ecological impacts and increased GHG emissions of palm oil production. Beyond the challenges of verifying that a company is living up to its commitment, there are a wide variety of commitments, some much stronger than others. Even just using the word ‘sustainable’ can be misleading, as it has been co-opted by the Roundtable On Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), a group of producers, traders, NGOs, and consumers working to develop en effective palm oil certification scheme.

May-Tobin said the RSPO standards only protect high conservation value forests and primary forests, leaving a whole swath of forest that can still be cut down. They also don’t necessarily recognize peat lands that accompany many of these forests, which dry out once the forest is cut down, emitting GHGs and causing what May-Tobin called a “double whammy from the climate angle.”

The Rainforest Action Network goes even farther, saying that “the term ‘sustainable palm oil’ has been diluted by association with the weak certification standards of the RSPO.” They say that many companies are buying mass balance RSPO-certified palm oil that allows for the mixing of RSPO-certified palm oil and non-RSPO-Certified palm oil and calling it 100 percent sustainable. They frame the overall situation as a choice between “conflict palm oil” and “responsible palm oil.”

A batch of fresh palm oil fruit bunches getting dumped into a storage facility. Borneo, Indonesia, 2011. CREDIT: flickr/Rainforest Action Network
A batch of fresh palm oil fruit bunches getting dumped into a storage facility. Borneo, Indonesia, 2011. CREDIT: flickr/Rainforest Action Network

As far as the additional economic costs of converting to responsible palm oil, May-Tobin said “there might be some real costs, some exaggerated costs, and some fears of costs that might not materialize.” As more companies produce the oil in a sustainable way, the costs will go down. Right now, segregating supply is a challenge, as different tanks, ships, and processing facilities must be used. If the entire market switched over, that would save overlapping infrastructure investments.

Adding another layer of complexity to the situation, palm oil is also being used as a biofuel with as much as 3.4 million tons going towards biodiesel for use this year in Indonesia. Biofuels are meant to replace GHG-intensive fossil fuels, but when the product comes from unsustainably produced crops, the gains can be hard to measure and the losses costly.

Adding demand to an already overburdened palm oil market may not lead to improvements in environmental or climate metrics. The EPA does not consider palm oil biodiesel a renewable fuel, having found that palm oil fuels emitted only 11 to 17 percent less greenhouse gases than diesel over their entire life cycle, therefore failing to meet the minimum 20 percent reduction threshold required.

A Western And Eastern Problem

At the end of The Giving Tree, all that’s left is a stump. The tree has given everything it can give. As global demand surges and meaningful commitments can be slow, it’s a fate those fighting for a sustainable palm oil industry hope to avoid.

In addition to the climate concerns, there are also a number of labor and human rights issues for those who work on palm oil plantations. The treatment of palm oil plantation workers has been widely reported as unfair and below international standards. A recent Bloomberg investigation found that workers in Indonesia experienced widespread human rights abuses. The nearly four million-strong workforce — including thousands of child laborers — face debt bondage, and traffickers at risk of few, if any, sanctions from business or government officials.

“We have a Western-facing strategy on an Eastern-facing problem,” Dave McLaughlin, who oversees agriculture issues for the World Wildlife Fund, told Reuters.

Stefano Savi, communications manager for the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, told ThinkProgress by email from Malaysia that the palm oil sector plays an important role in the reduction of poverty in areas where there are large numbers of plantations and mills. He also said that “the RSPO Standard is by all means an evolving standard.” As far as environmental and climate concerns, Savi said that while peat-free practices are not yet required, the commitment has been updated so that planting on peat is to be avoided. Previously, peat was not mentioned within the criteria.

“The vision of the RSPO is to transform the market to make sustainable palm oil the norm,” said Savi. “We believe this definition is currently the best option we have towards the achievement of these goals.”

Savi said it is now possible to trace back palm oil to a single mill and its set of certified plantations, making it easier for consumers to find the source of the products. He said that while all players can’t achieve this in the short term, the standard is aimed a transforming the market as a whole.

“It is important to understand that we cannot take the environmental problem at a global level, unless we globalize the development problem as well,” he said.

In the first two episodes of the new Showtime climate change documentary series Years of Living Dangerously, Harrison Ford travels to Indonesia to see firsthand how palm oil growth is impacting the environment. As he visits national parks overrun with seemingly illegal plantations, he grows increasingly enraged. In an uncomfortable scene, Ford berates the Indonesian ministry of forestry for failing to enforce forestry protections. The minister responds serenely that Indonesia is still a new democracy with many kinks to work out. The next day, after some controversy over Ford’s antagonistic approach, he has a much more subdued conversation with the Indonesian prime minister who says that the ties between government and industry in Indonesia are still too strong and that they are working on this relationship.

Nearly 250 years after the U.S. became a democracy, ties between business and government remain powerfully linked. Palm oil has become a hot commodity in the global capitalist system. The best way of convincing corporations and governments to pay attention thus far in the global effort to stem palm oil-related deforestation and the associated greenhouse gas emissions seems to be consumer awareness.