The palm oil situation is bad, but some people argue that it would be worse if replaced by other vegetable oils.
It's nearly impossible to avoid palm oil these days. The most popular edible oil in the world can be found in everything from lotion and toothpaste to saltines and ice cream cones. Even if you study the ingredient list, you might not realize that palm oil goes by many names – and, worse yet, can be an unlisted ingredient in another ingredient.
Take, for example, decyl glucoside, a cleansing agent used in baby shampoos and body washes. Writing for National Geographic, Hillary Rosner says, "It's made, in part, from decanol — a fatty alcohol molecule often derived from palm oil." So, too, are lauryl glucoside and sodium lauryl sulfate, ingredients commonly found in toothpaste. Rosner continues: "Even our conditioner contains palm oil in the form of glycerin as well as cetearyl alcohol — a common ingredient used to thicken many conditioners."Lush Cosmetics has addressed this issue of palm oil found in other ingredients, stating, "Although we no longer use palm oil in our products, some of our safe synthetics contain palm oil derivates, simply because it’s so hard to find a suitable alternative."
Does this mean we should do even more research when purchasing products to ensure that palm oil cannot be found at any level of production? Rosner, interestingly, argues "no." Instead, she thinks our consumer research should revolve more around where and how palm oil is grown. This goes against what I had thought to be the better approach, which was to avoid palm oil at all costs, certified sustainable or not; but Rosner makes some interesting points. She writes:
"Boycotting it 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. Supporting the companies that are moving away from destructive practices will help make the whole industry more sustainable."
The big thing in palm oil's favor is its high yields. Oil palms produce 4 to 10 times more oil per acre than soy or canola, which means that if consumer demand pushed companies toward these other alternatives, it could lead to more deforestation. One of Lush's ethical buyers, Mark Rumbell, put this into alarming perspective:
"To produce the same amount of oil that comes from one hectare of palm you would need three hectares of rapeseed, four hectares of sunflower, 4.7 hectares of soya or seven hectares of coconut... If the entire world switched to coconut we would need around seven times as much land."
Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, located in Colorado Springs, CO, has a section of its website dedicated to protecting orangutans and making better palm oil choices. It too advocates against boycotting for the reasons above, as well as the fact that poor countries like Indonesia and Malaysia rely on the palm oil industry to employ millions of people. Striving to make the industry more sustainable through certifications such as Rainforest Alliance and the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) is better for them than having it collapse. From the Zoo's website:
"There will always be a demand for edible oil, and demand is growing due to worldwide population growth. Palm oil is in many of the items we eat and use every day. If we boycott palm oil, another crop will take its place."
Like I said before, these viewpoints are at odds with my attitude toward palm oil, despite having visited a Rainforest Alliance-certified palm oil plantation in Honduras in 2014. It was an impressive operation, but I wrote at the time that I'd continue to avoid palm oil – "mostly because it’s difficult to find Rainforest Alliance-certified products where I live, and because I prioritize local products over tropical imports whenever possible."
I think that last point remains relevant for those of us who do not live in tropical countries. Our ancestors never encountered palm oil because their lives were simpler, less consumeristic, less reliant on imports. They didn't have a different skincare product for every body part or packaged snacks for eating on the go.
What we need is a blend of approaches – a strict commitment to sourcing sustainable palm oil whenever it does appear as an ingredient, accompanied by an overall decrease in the number of items we buy that contain it. Think of it as making do with less (fewer items and purer ingredient lists) and making more things from scratch. The decrease will happen naturally, since only 19 percent of palm oil is RSPO-certified, making it harder to find.
WWF has a scorecard from 2016 that ranks international brands on their commitment to sourcing sustainable palm oil. Check it out before you go shopping. You can also download an app called Sustainable Palm Oil Shopping produced by the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo that allows you to check if products are orangutan-friendly and made from sustainable palm oil; there are more than 5,000 products in the database. And definitely familiarize yourself with these 25 sneaky names for palm oil.