Denver Zoo's Sloth Exhibit Teaches Visitors About Palm Oil

A partnership with Palm Done Right links farming methods to sloth habitats.

sloths at Denver Zoo
Charlotte and Elliot, a pair of Linne's two-toed sloths at Denver Zoo.

Palm Done Right x Denver Zoo

If you take a trip to the Denver Zoo at some point over the next few months, you'll see an adorable-looking pair of Linne's two-toed sloths named Elliot and Charlotte. As they (and their baby Wookiee) adjust to a new and improved home in the Tropical Discovery wing, visitors will notice an accompanying campaign called "Shop Smart to Save Sloths." 

This campaign is the result of a partnership with Palm Done Right, an organization that helps palm oil farmers in Ecuador to maintain their oil palm plantations more sustainably and to educate consumers about the importance of supporting such initiatives. Such efforts have a direct impact on the wellbeing of Elliot's and Charlotte's wild relatives, who live in the Ecuadorean rainforest.

Palm oil has a notorious reputation for driving deforestation and destroying wildlife habitats, and yet it is used in 50% of the products found in supermarkets, from food to cleaning supplies to personal care products. It provides 35% of the world's vegetable oil supply. 

As Palm Done Right explains on its website, it's not going anywhere.

"Palm oil is here to stay. It is the most productive and efficient vegetable oil crop. Palm oil enhances the quality and performance of the food, personal care and household products we use on a daily basis."

No other vegetable oil is as versatile or as lucrative to produce. The best option, therefore, is to improve how it's produced and to set a higher standard for what we buy.

Palm Done Right works exclusively in Ecuador, where it "supports independent farmers in the conversion from conventional palm cultivation to organic, sustainable and ethical practices," as Monique van Wijnbergen explains to Treehugger. Van Wijnbergen is the director of Sustainability and Corporate Communications at Natural Habitats, a Boulder, Co.-based group that buys organic, fair-trade products from independent farmers in South America.

"Palm Done Right stands for deforestation-free palm oil. That means that no forests are cut or burned to make room for palm development," she adds. "By preventing deforestation we protect the habitat of wildlife. Many of the farmers in our collection network have conservation areas around their oil palms, which they protect. Following the guidelines of the RSPO and Rainforest Alliance standards, awareness is raised and farmers are trained about the importance of forest and wildlife conservation."

The partnership with Denver Zoo makes these efforts more prominent in the public eye and encourages people to look out for key certifications when buying products that contain palm oil. As explained in a press release, the exhibit will teach visitors that buying properly-produced palm oil can mitigate habitat destruction and support farmers making an honest effort to do better. 

Dr. Amy Harrison-Levine, director of Field Conservation Programs at Denver Zoo, says the zoo's biggest focus is on "developing an appreciation for the interconnectedness between humans, animals, and the environment, and to help people see the connection between what they do and what happens in nature."

"By making a direct connection to the sloth that people can see at Denver Zoo, and explaining that the sloth's natural home is in South America," van Wijnberger continues, "we aim to make people aware that the choices they make influence the wellbeing of these animals in South America [and keep] their habitat safe and healthy. Guests' mindful choices make a difference."

It's a smart initiative, to tie consumer products to an animal exhibit at a zoo. What better place to capture the attention of people who care about these animals and give them a tangible takeaway? Zoos are where so many young children feel a strong initial connection to the animal world, and there's no reason why zoos can't also be springboards to ethical and sustainable consumerism going forward.

Shoppers are urged to do their part by shopping smart and checking product labels. "Be sure products are made with sustainable palm oil and demand ingredient transparency. Voting with your dollar makes a big impact and supports our shared mission to protect our planet and the people and animals in it. Look for products with the Palm Done Right logo."

Here at Treehugger, we've long been advocates for avoiding palm oil wherever possible. While that still might be your preferred option, it has been argued that boycotts aren't the best approach. Hillary Rosner wrote for National Geographic: "Boycotting could have ramifications that are even worse for the environment. Producing the same amount of another vegetable oil would take up even more land. And eliminating support for the companies trying to make palm oil production less ecologically damaging would give a competitive advantage to the ones that care only about turning a profit, everything else be damned."

Palm Done Right is one of those companies striving to help while maintaining the incomes on which thousands of small-scale farmers depend. You can read its full promise that pledges to be 100% organic, deforestation-free, friendly to wildlife, and fair to workers. 

And go see those sloths if you have the chance! As the Zoo explains, adjusting your shopping habits can help sloths keep their treetop homes in faraway forests.