Why is palm oil bad? And is boycotting it the answer?

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Palm oil is ubiquitous in our modern life. It is in one of every 2 items on a Western supermarket shelf and has over 500 different names. It has seeped into nearly every category of products we buy: from chocolate, chips, bread and butter, to cosmetics and toiletries (including razor blades), even to biodiesel: a supposedly eco-friendly fuel alternative.

Why is this such a bad thing? Because it’s production is having huge effects: in tropical countries, on people and animals, and the whole world’s climate. Below is an overview of why palm oil is such a big industry, the uses of palm oil, 6 major issues with palm oil production and consumption, a discussion of whether palm oil can be sustainable, or whether a total boycott is the best action to take.


So, what is palm oil?

Palm oil comes from trees that are native to West Africa. They produce palm fruit which is used in two ways: the flesh is used for palm oil, also known as Red Palm Oil or Crude Palm Oil (CPO), while the seed of the fruit creates Palm Kernal Oil (PKO).

Red Palm Oil is used in food production — especially processed and packaged food — and as a softening and greasing agent. It is also used in some paints and plasticisers, and increasingly it’s being used as a biofuel. Palm wax also comes from palm oil and is used in the manufacture of many candles.

Palm Kernal Oil is mainly used for detergents and cleaning products, soaps, cosmetics, insecticides, and some substances for the electronics industry. (source: PalmOilAction.org) Palm Kernal Meal (PKM) or Palm Kernal Cake (PKC) is used as livestock feed, considered to be a medium-grade protein for animals.

Palm oil fruit

Why is palm oil so widely used?

Simply because it has such a high yield in the smallest land area, it is the cheapest option to produce. A mature tree (4 years old +) tree can produce 12-14 bunches of fruit per year, weighing up to 25 kilograms. Each bunch contains thousands of fruits, with each fruit containing 25-30% oil. A heathy tree can produce for about 30 years. (source: goldenagri.com.sg)

Palm oil yield vs soybean and rapeseed oil

Palm oil yield vs soybean and rapeseed oil from Palm Oil Investigations

Why is palm oil bad?

The industry is killing orangutans and other endangered wildlife

Much has been written about how palm oil is harming orangutans. A recent report showed that over 100,000 orangutans have been killed just in Borneo in the last 16 years, mainly due to deforestation for palm oil plantations. Even in rainforest that remains, orangutans are being poached or killed, despite their critically endangered status. They are killed for eating fruit from crops, although their habitats are being destroyed and they have little other food sources. And they are killed by smoke inhalation from raging fires that slash and burn rainforest ready for new plantations.

Other animals are affected by palm oil plantations too. The sumatran tiger, sumatran elephant, and the sumatran rhinoceros are all also critically endangered, and the borneo pygmy elephant is endangered too. Yet their habitats continue to be encroached upon as palm oil plantations keep expanding. And of course, deforestation for monoculture crops like palm oil destroys biodiversity for animals and plants: in the most biodiverse places on earth. Without such rich variation of plant life, many other animals cannot survive either. Exploring Conservation reports that despite an increase in protected areas (PAs) of forests since 1990,

some 17% of threatened bird, mammal, and amphibian species have not been recorded in any PA, and 85% are so poorly represented across PAs that they may not survive in the long-term”.

mother and infant orangutan

Palm oil production is hurting people who live in the forest and who work in the industry

Animals are not the only victims of palm oil plantations. People who live in the forest also face many difficulties, as do workers on the plantations themselves. SPOTT has a detailed and referenced article about the various issues, summarised below:

Many people in Indonesia and Malaysia have been forcibly removed from their homes, as their land rights were not acknowledged. Culturally significant sites have been destroyed, as well as livelihoods and natural resources that the forest has supplied people living there for Millenia. And health problems have arisen from contaminated drinking water, loss of nutritional and medicinal plants, and smoke from clearing with fires: one study by authors from Harvard and Cambridge estimates that over 100,000 premature deaths in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore were caused by fires getting out of control in 2015. And fires continue to break out annually in Indonesia, especially in peat lands which dry out due to deforestation. The plantations responsible for the fires sell their palm oil to major brands such as Nestle and Unilever.

Clearing forest with the slash-and-burn technique

When we were in Malaysia in 2017 we visited some people who live in the rainforest during our stay at an organic rice farm. They had not been removed from their homes, but trees for palm oil had been planted in their region and they were employed to tend for them. We saw one man trying to cut off a bunch of the palm fruit with a machete tied to a very long stick. It appeared to be difficult work with unstable apparatus.

The leader that we spoke with acknowledged that the palm industry was bad for his people, but they felt they had no choice. This is a common situation:

With plantations systematically destroying the rainforest land that the local people depend on, communities are continuously finding themselves with no choice but to become plantation workers. Faced with poor and degrading working conditions, some earn barely enough income to survive and support their families. Instead of being able to sustain themselves, indigenous communities become reliant on the palm oil industry for their income and survival, leaving these villagers incredibly vulnerable to the world market price of palm oil which they have no control over.” (from Say No to Palm Oil)

Palm fruit harvest near Kahang, Malaysia in 2017.

Palm fruit freshly harvested near Kahang, Malaysia in 2017.

Palm oil crops are destroying vital rainforests, which has local and global effects

Palm producers prefer to destroy primary rainforest for their plantations, as they can sell some of the timber and reclaim some money, plus they don’t have to prime the land with fertilizers as they would need to with barren lands. This affects local temperatures quite dramatically: differences of up to 10°C in parts of Sumatra have been observed between intact forest and cleared land. And the climate is affected much further too:

The draining, burning, and conversion of peat swamp forests to palm oil has been especially damaging to the world’s climate as it has led to Indonesia being the third largest contributor of carbon to the world’s atmosphere after China and the United States.” from The Effects of Palm Oil

Think about that for a moment: Indonesia is the fourth post populous country after China, India and the US, with approximately 263 million people. India has 1.3 billion people, and yet Indonesia produces more carbon emissions than India does, thanks to the production of palm oil.

Trees felled in Papua New Guinea to make way for Palm Oil trees

Trees felled to make way for a Palm Oil plantation (Image courtesy of Global Witness)

Carbon is increased from deforestation in three ways: releasing carbon held by the trees during burning-off; reducing the quantity of trees that can pull our carbon dioxide from the atmosphere; and replacing forests with agriculture which produces it own emissions (via machinery and/or livestock).

But carbon-based impacts are not the only negative result of tropical deforestation: research is showing that it is changing global rainfall patterns too. Forests partly cause inland rainfall, and areas downwind of the forests are dependent on them. More evidence is mounting that deforested areas are experiencing less rain, which affects the immediate area, and again, much further. Researchers warn that the risks of droughts are rapidly increasing, and the effects of rainfall pattern changes can be felt by whole countries as far from the tropics as China, as well as 19 megacities around the world. (source: YaleEnvironment360)

It is very hard to identify all of the names for palm oil, and to trace how it was produced

There are over 500 different names for palm oil (all listed below), and because of it’s low cost and variability, it is used in nearly every type of product we can buy. And to make it even more difficult, is not required to be specifically identified in food in many countries, including Australia: so it’s often hidden under generic “vegetable oil” terminology.

This is a problem because many producers are clearing land for plantations that they are not supposed to be using. Illegal clearing is a common problem, even for producers who have committed to sustainable production methods.

New Straits Times reported earlier this year that more than a dozen global brands including, Nestle and Unilever, bought palm oil sources from illegally cleared rainforest in Indonesia. This video from Greenpeace shows some of that rainforest being cut down in 2018.

And a report by Chain Reaction Research shows how 10 palm oil producers — who have committed to No Deforestation, No Peat, No Exploitation (NDPE) sourcing policies — have been using ‘shadow companies’ and other techniques to obscure continued unsustainable production methods as recently as 2017.

On the bus in Malaysia in 2017, we saw many palm oil plantations.

On the bus in Malaysia in 2017, we saw huge palm oil plantations.

Palm oil has been touted as a healthy vegetable oil, but poses some health risks. And is it really vegan-friendly?

Whether palm oil is healthy or not to consume depends on several factors. As it has virtually no trans-fat content and a long shelf life, palm oil is used in a huge amount of foods. These include most pre-packaged snacks and meals, like chips/crisps and biscuits/cookies, as well as ice-cream, margarine, chocolate, peanut butter, bread, pizza bases and other baked goods, instant noodles, many vegan products, protein bars, and cereals.

Palm oil is about 50% saturated fat and 50% unsaturated. Red palm oil, which is unrefined oil from palm fruit, has some health benefits, including antioxidants, beta-carotene and vitamin E. Some studies have shown that consuming palm oil can decrease cholesterol levels, while others have shown increases in cholesterol for some people. One study also shows that reheating palm oil for consumption increases arterial plaque, a serious health concern. Dr Axe has a good discussion of the literature and points out that

much of the palm oil on the market today is heavily processed and oxidized for culinary purposes. This depletes the palm oil of its health-promoting properties and can have negative impacts on health.”

Whether tropical oils that are high in saturated fat (palm and coconut oil) are healthy is currently a big debate which I will not go into here. But it is generally accepted that highly processed foods are not healthy. Palm oil that is guaranteed to retain health benefits is unrefined and cold-pressed, yet it is doubtful that most processed foods contain this kind of oil. If most foods don’t contain extra virgin olive oil or cold-pressed coconut oil, they’re unlikely to contain red palm oil either. Yet as labelling laws don’t often require palm oil to even be identified, it is very difficult to know for sure.

Finally, palm oil is often used in vegan-friendly products, as it technically is a vegetable oil. But because it is wiping out orangutans and other animal species, I and many others question its acceptance as a cruelty-free product. The industry is directly harming wildlife — not to mention people — and seems to have little care for these effects.

Palm oil in eco-friendly shampoo

This brand of shampoo is careful to use BPA-free plastic and natural ingredients, and says it doesn’t test on animals. But it does contain palm oil, so can it claim to be cruelty-free?

Demand for palm oil continues to increase, so plantations are expanding into more tropical countries

Though 85% of palm oil is grown in Malaysia and Indonesia, plantations are also now growing in Papua New Guinea, Africa, South America and the Phillipines. And they are expanding, creating the same the same issues for humans, habitat loss and pressure on animal life, and lack of biodiversity too.

Satellite imagery shows that despite an uncertain legal status, a Malaysian palm oil company is continuing to clear rainforest in Papua New Guinea as recently as July 2018. A Press Release by Friends of the Orangutans Malaysia reports that all Special Agricultural and Business Leases in PNG were declared unlawful in 2017, due to widespread corruption. And yet the palm oil producer is on track with planting 20,000 hectares of palm trees by 2019 in what was primary and secondary rainforest. The images below shows their recent deforestation:

Deforestation in PNG June-July 2018 section A

Images courtesy of Global Witness

Deforestation in PNG June-July 2018 Section B

Images courtesy of Global Witness

One reason for palm oil’s continued growth is that is has been utilized as a biofuel in recent years. It was imported into Europe primarily for energy use in 2017, and concerns about its increasing use has led to the EU agreeing to phase out palm oil for use in fuel by 2030. Yet in July 2018 Indonesia announced incentives for developers of 100% palm-oil biodiesel, highlighting new production methods that can produce diesel with 90% fewer emissions than fossil fuels.

I find using palm oil for energy needs disturbing. It has been estimated that palm oil-based biofuels have 3 times the climatic impact of fossil fuels, and yet is being promoted as a cleaner fuel. It’s production has been shown as consistently causing environmental damage, with negative social and health impacts also. It cannot be a cleaner fuel if it causes unsustainable deforestation and harm to people and animals in its production.

So is a boycott of palm oil the answer?

There are two lines of thought about this. Some environmental organisations recommend boycotting palm oil from your life, while others concentrate on supporting sustainable palm oil. WWF supports the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO): the first certification body aiming to make the industry sustainable. RSPO-certified growers accounted for 19% of global palm oil production in 2014, but the RSPO has been widely criticised for not doing enough to ensure palm oil can be produced sustainably.

Research from the University of Queensland found that orangutan populations declined at the same rate between RSPO-certified and non-certified plantations between 2009 – 2014, and that poverty increases and outbreaks of fires were also similar.

Orangutan Foundation International supports a total boycott of palm oil, because the RSPO and other certification schemes are continuing to allow deforestation and destruction of peatlands.

Palm Oil Investigations (POI) used to support the RSPO but no longer does. They do still support the palm oil industry however: making the point that palm oil is such a big industry which many people rely on, it is not going to disappear anytime soon. They also point to its omnipresent use in so many facets of life, rendering it almost impossible to boycott. Finally, they compare its yield to other crops to show that they would require more land to produce. Thus POI supports Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO), but not deforestation for palm oil. 

Greenpeace has called for measures beyond the RSPO, and The Forest Trust is one NGO which has policies that require more of its certified members. Brands who have signed with The Forest Trust include Nestle, Mars and Johnson & Johnson: yet as mentioned above, Nestle and many big brands have still been linked to buying oil from tainted sources.

The Rainforest Alliance collaborates with RSPO and the Tropical Forest Alliance 2020, yet upholds their own Sustainable Agriculture Standard to conserve biodiversity and natural resources, and improved livelihoods and human well-being. Since 2013 palm oil farmers in Asia, Central and South America, and Africa have benefited from Rainforest Alliance training and workshops.

The Palm Oil Innovation Group (POIG) was formed in 2013 to build upon the RSPO’s guidelines. It’s members include Greenpeace, Rainforest Action Network, Forest People’s Program, WWF, several orangutan conservation groups and fair labour organisations, plus palm producers and companies including Ferrero and L’oreal.

POIG adds criteria for members to adhere to, aiming to create a

responsible supply chain that has broken the link between palm oil production and the destruction of forests and peatlands, the exploitation of communities and workers, and climate change.”

The organising committee for POIG is equally represented by producers/purchasing companies and action groups. They seem to be the best way forward, although many of the issues with palm oil haven’t been improved a great deal yet. I acknowledge that change is complex within such a huge industry, but still only an small percentage of the 66 million tonnes of palm oil produced every year is produced sustainably.

A young plantation in Malaysia, 2017.

A young plantation in Malaysia, 2017.

What can we do to address the concerns we have about palm oil?

We can do quite a lot, and we need to take action for our collective effort to have more impact.

Be educated about why it matters.

Follow up the many links in this article if you’d like more information, to understand it for yourself. Start conversations with others about it, and involve your kids or students. I have included some links below for children to learn about it too.

Become aware of the ways you are supporting palm oil.

Palm oil has over 500 different names. Making informed decisions ensures that you are not inadvertently supporting unsustainable palm oil, but of course it’s impossible to remember all of its guises. The International Palm Oil Free Certification Accreditation Programme has provided this extensive list; how many you recognise? Check some of your common household items across all categories — food, cosmetics, detergents, soaps and shampoos, automotive products, candles, paints — and see which include ingredients from this list:

The many names for palm oil and palm kernal oil:

© Bev Luff 2009, updated 2017

2-Ethyl Hexyl Stearate
100 Cetyl/stearyl ether
12-Hydroxystearic acid
acetylated glycol stearate
Acetylated monoglycerides
Acetic and fatty acid esters of glycerol (472a/E472a)
Acrylated Palm Oil
AHCOHOL 0810 (Octyl Decyl Alcohol)
AHCOHOL 0898 (Octyl Alcohol)
AHCOHOL 1098 (Decyl Alcohol)
AHCOHOL 1216 (Lauryl/Myristyl Alcohol)
AHCOHOL 1299 (Lauryl Alcohol)
AHCOHOL 1498 (Myristyl Alcohol NF)
AHCOHOL 1618 (Cetyl Stearyl/Cetearyl Alcohol)
AHCOHOL 1698 (Cetyl Alcohol NF)
AHCOHOL 1898 (Stearyl Alcohol NF)
AHCOHOL® Fatty Alcohols
Alkyl alcohol Aluminium stearate
Alkyl polyglucoside
Aluminium, calcium, sodium, magnesium salts of fatty acids (470/E470a; E470b)
Aluminum dimyristate 
Aluminum Isostearates
Aluminium myristate
Aluminium palmitate
Aluminium stearate 
Ammonium laureth sulphate
Ammonium lauryl sulphate
Anionic & Non Anionic Surfactants (too generic an ingredient, need more info on)
Arachamide mea
Ascorbyl palmitate
Ascorbyl palmitate (304)
Ascorbyl stearate
Azelaic acid
Behenic acid 85% (C22)
Behentrimonium methosulphate
beta Carotene
Butyl myristate 
Butyl stearate
Butyl Stearate IPM (Isopropyl Myristate)
Calcium lactylate
Calcium oleyl lactylate
Calcium myristate 
Calcium stearate
Calcium stearoyl lactylate (482/E482)
Capric Acid (C10)
Capric triglyceride
Capryl Glucoside
Caprylic acid
Caprylic acid (C8))
Caprylic triglyceride
Caprylic/capric acid (C810)
Caprylic-capric triglycerides
Caprylic-capric-stearic triglyceride
Capryloyl glycine
Caprylyl glycol
Carboxylic acid 
Carboxymethyl cellulose (CMC) (can come from PKC cellulose)
Ceteareth (2-100)
Cetearyl alcohol
Cetearyl ethylhexanote
Cetearyl glucoside
Cetearyl isononanoate
Cetearyl olivate
Cetyltrimethylammonium bromide (CTAB) 
Cetyltrimethylammonium chloride (CTAC)
Cetrimonium bromide
Cetrimonium chloride
Cetostearyl alcohol
Cetyl acetate
Cetyl alcohol
Cetyl ethylhexanoate
Cetyl hydroxyethylcellulose
Cetyl lactate
Cetyl myristate 
Cetyl octanoate
Cetyl palmitate
Cetyl ricinoleate
Cetyl-PG Hydroxyethyl Palmitamide
Cetyl/stearyl ether 
Citric and fatty acid esters of glycerol (472c/E472c)
Citris seed extract
Coco - Caprylate
Coco - polyglucose
Cocoyl sarcosine
Coco - DEA
Coco - Glucoside
Coco Alkyl Betaine
Coco MEA
Cocoa butter equivalent (CBE)
Cocoa butter substitute (CBS)
Cocoamidopropyl Amine Oxide
Cocomide - DEA
cocomide - MEA
Cocomidopropyl - Betaine
Coconut Fatty Acid
Decal - Glucosde
Decyl Myristate 
Decyl oleate
Diacetyltartaric and fatty acid esters of glycerol (472e/E472e)
Dicaprylyl Ether
dicocoyl ethyl hydroxyethylmonium methosulfate
Dicocoyl Pentaerythrityl Distearyl Citrate
Dilinoleic acid
Disodium laureth sulfosuccinate
Disodium lauryl sulfosuccinate
Distilled Fatty Acids
Distilled Monoglyceride Palm
Distilled Palm Kernel (DPK)
Dried Yeast
EBS – Ethylene Bis Stearamide
EBS Beads
Elaeis guineensis oil
Emulsifier 422
Emulsifier 430
Emulsifier 431
Emulsifier 432
Emulsifier 433
Emulsifier 434
Emulsifier 436
Emulsifier 470
Emulsifier 470a
Emulsifier 470b
Emulsifier 471
Emulsifier 471a
Emulsifier 471b
Emulsifier 471c
Emulsifier 471d
Emulsifier 472e
Emulsifier 473
Emulsifier 474
Emulsifier 475
Emulsifier 476
Emulsifier 477
Emulsifier 478
Emulsifier 481
Emulsifier 482
Emulsifier 483
Emulsifier 484
Emulsifier 485
Emulsifier 493
Emulsifier 494
Emulsifier 495
Epoxidized palm oil (uv cured coatings)
Emulsifying wax
Ethoxylated glycerol monooleate 
Ethoxylated lauryl alcohol
Ethoxylated monoglycerides 
Ethoxylated Sorbitan monostearate (SMS)
Ethoxylated Sorbitan Mono-stearate (STS)
Ethoxylated palm oil
Ethyl lauroyl arginate (243)
Ethylene glycol monostearate
Ethylhexyl hydroxystearate
Ethylhexyl myristate
Ethylhexyl palmitate
Ethylhexyl stearate
Ethylene glycol diesters
Ethylene glycol esters
Ethylene glycol monoesters
Ethylene glycol monostearate
Ethyhexyl hydroxystearate
Ethylhexyl myristate
Ethylhexyl palminate
Ethylhexyl stearate 
Fatty Acid Diethanolamides
Fatty Acid Monoethanolamides
Fatty Acids
Fatty Alcohol Alkoxylate
Fatty Alcohol Ethoxylate
Fatty alcohol sulphates
Fatty isethionate
Fractionated Palm Methyl Esters
Glycerin or glycerol (442)
Glyceryl cocoate 
Glyceryl esters
Glycerol di-myristate
Glyceryl distearate
Glyceryl laurate
glyceryl monococoate
Glyceryl monostearate
Glyceryl myristate
Glyceryl oleate
Glyceryl polymethacrylate
Glyceryl rosinate
Glyceryl stearate
Glyceryl stearate SE
Glyceryl tripalmitate 
Glycol distearate
Glycol stearate
Grapefruit seed extract
Guineesis (palm)
Hexyl laurate
Humectant 422
Hydrogenated palm glycerides
IPO (Isopropyl Oleate)
Isopropyl Acetate
Isopropyl isostearate
Isoamyl laurate
Isobutyl myristate
Isocetyl alcohol
Isocetyl myristate
Isodecyl oleate
Isopropyl esters
Isopropyl isostearate
Isopropyl myristate
Isopropyl palmitate
Isopropyl titanium triisostearate
Isostearamide DEA
Isostearate DEA
Isostearic acid
Isostearyl alcohol
Isostearyl isostearate
Isostearyl myristate
Isostearyl neopentanoate
Isotridecyl myristate
Lactic and fatty acid esters of glycerol (472b/E472b)
Lactylated Monoglycerides
Lauramide DEA
Lauramide MEA
Lauramine oxide
Lauric acid
Lauric Acid (C12)
Lauroyl sarcosine
Lauryl Alcohol Ethoxylates (2, 3 & 4 Mole)
Lauryl betaine
Lauryl dimonium hydrolysed collagen​ 
Lauryl glucoside
Lauryl lactate
Laurel myristate
Lauryl pyrrolidone
Lauryl sarcosine
Lecithin isopropyl palm oil
Linoleic acid
Magnesium myristate
Magnesium stearate
Metallic stearates
Methyl laurate (1214)
Methyl myristate
Methyl laurate stearate (1218)
Methyl oleate (1898)
Methyl palmitate-stearate (1618)
(Methyl palmitate-stearate – DPK)
Mixed tartaric, acetic and fatty acid esters of glycerol (472f/E472f)
Mono-and-di-glycerides of fatty acids (471/E471)
Mono glycerides of fatty acids
Monoglyceride citrate 
Myreth 3 myristate​
Myristic acid
Myristic Acid (C14))
Myristic Cetrimonium Chloride Acid
Myristyl alcohol
Myristyl myristate
Myristoyl Sarcosine
Myristoyl Sarcosinate
Myristyl alcohol
Myristyl myristate
n- Butyl esters
N-stearoyl phytosphingosine
N-stearoyl sphinganine
Octyl palmitate
Octyl stearate
Octyldodecyl myristate
Octyldodecyl stearoyl stearate
Oleamide MIPA
Oleic acid
Oleic Acid FGK
Oleyl betaine
Oleyl myristate
Oleoyl sarcsine
Olivem 1000
Olive - emulse
Oliv-wax LQC
PALMESTER fatty esters 
Palm fruit oil
Palmitoleic acid
Palm Kernel Acid
Palm kernel cake
Palm Kernel Diethanolamide
Palm Kernel Fatty Acid
Palm Kernel Monoethanolamide
Palm kernel oil
Palm Methyl Esters
Palm oil
Palm olein
Palm stearine
Palm Sterine (PS)
Palmitamidopropyl betaine​ 
Palmitamidopropyltrimonium chloride
Palmitic acid
Palmitic Acid (C16)
Palmitoyl acid
Palmitoyl alcohol
Palm oleic acid
Palmitoyl myristyl serinate
Palmitoyl oligopeptide
Palmitoyl oxostearamide
Palmitoyl tetrapeptide-3
Palm Methyl Ester 
PBS Base
PEG-2 cetyl/stearyl ether 
PEG - 7
PEG-100 stearate
PEG-12 Carnauba
PEG-15 stearyl ether
PEG-150 distearate
PEG-2 oleamine
PEG-20 stearate
PEG-4 laurate
PEG-40 stearate
PEG-8 distearate
PEG-8 stearate
PEG-80 sorbitan laurate
Pentaerythritol tetra caprai/caprylate
Pentaerythrityl tetracaprylate/tetracaprate 
Pentaerythrityl tetraisostearate
Peptide complex
PG dicaprylate/caprate 
PK oleic acid 
PME 1214 (Methyl Laurate Myristate)
PME 1218 (Methyl Laurate Stearate)
PME 1298 (Methyl Laurate) PME 1618
PME 1618 (Methyl Palmitate Oleate)
PME 1698 (Methyl Palmitate)
PME 1898 (Methyl Oleate – PK)
POFA (palm oil fuel ash)
Polyethylene glycol 
Polyethylene (40) stearate (431)
Polyglycerol esters of fatty acids (475/E475)
Polyglycerol esters of interesterified ricinoleic acid (476/E476)
Polyglycerol-2 oleyl ether
Polyglyceryl-3 dilisostearate
Polyglyceryl-4 isostearate
Polyglyceryl-4 laurate
Polyglyceryl-4 oleyl ether
Polyoxyethylene Glycol (PEG-7)
Polysorbate 60 or polyoxyethylene (20) sorbitan monostearate (435/E435)
Polysorbate 65 or polyoxyethylene (20) sorbitan tristearate (436/E436)
Polysorbate 80 or polyoxyethylene (20) sorbitan monoolate (433/E433)
POME palm oil mill effluent
Potassium Cetyl Phosphate 
Potassium Palmitate
Potassium myristate 
Potassium stearate
PPG-15 stearate ether
PPG-4 Laureth-5
Propylene glycol monoester
Propylene glycol myristate 
Propylene glycol
Propylene glycol esters of fatty acids (477/E477)
Propylene glycol laurate
Propylene glycol stearate
Retinyl palmitate
Rubber Grade Stearic Acid
Saponified elaeis guineensis
Sodium cetearyl sulphate
Sodium Coco Sulphate 
sodium cocoyl glycinate 
​Sodium cocoyl isethionate
Sodium Dodecyl Sulphate (SDS or NaDS)
Sodium Isostearoyl Lactylaye
Sodium lactylate
Sodium laurate
Sodium laurel
Sodium laureth sulfate
Sodium laureth sulphate
Sodium laureth-13 carboxylate
Sodium lauroamphoacetate
Sodium lauroyl glutamate
Sodium lauroyl lactylate
Sodium lauryl
Sodium lauryl ether sulphate (SLES)
Sodium lauryl sulfate
Sodium lauryl sulfoacetate
Sodium lauryl sulphate
Sodium lauroyl sarcosinate
Sodium myristate 
sodium oleyl lactylate
Sodium Methyl Cocoyl Taurate 
Sodium stearoyl lactylate
Sodium palm kernelate
Sodium palm kerneloyl isethionate 
Sodium palmate
Sodium palmitate
Sodium stearate
Sodium stearoyl fumarate
Sodium Stearoyl glutamate
Sodium stearoyl lactylate
sodium stearoyl lactylate (481/E481)
Solubiliser PS20
Sorbitan Caprylate
Sorbitan Cocoate
Sorbitan diisostearate 
Sorbitan Distearate​ 
​Sorbitan ester 
Sorbitan isotearate
Sorbitan laurate
Sorbitan monoglyceride
Sorbitan monolaurate
Sorbitan monopalmitate
Sorbitan monostearate (491)
Sorbitan palmitate
Sorbitan sesquioleate
Sorbitan trioleate
Sorbitan tristearate
Sorbitan tristearate (492)
Sorbitan triglyceride 
Stearalkonium chloride
Stearalkonium hectorite
Stearamide MEA
Stearamidopropyl dimethylamine
Stearamine Oxide
Steareth - 2
Steareth - 7 
Steareth - 10 
Steareth - 11 
Steareth - 13
Steareth - 14
Steareth - 15
Steareth - 16 
Steareth - 20 
Steareth - 21 
Steareth - 25 
Steareth - 27
Steareth - 30 
Steareth - 40 
Steareth - 50
Steareth - 100 
Stearic Acid (C18)& (570)
Stearic acid (vegetable oil)
Stearic Acid 50 NF Powder
Stearic Acid 55% 65%, 70%, 90%
Stearic acid or fatty acid (570)
Stearic hydrazide
Stearoyl sarcosine
Stearyl acetate
Stearyl alcohol
Stearyl alcohol NF
Stearyl caprylate,
Stearyl citrate
Stearyl dimethicone
Stearyl glycyrrhetinate
Stearyl heptanoate
Stearyl Octanoate
Stearyl Stearate
Stearyl tartarate
Stearyltrimethylammonium Chloride​​ 
Stearoyl lactic acid
Stearyldimethyl amine
Steartrimonium chloride
Succinylated monoglycerides 
Sucrose esters of fatty acids (473/E473)
sucrose distearate
sucrose oleate
sucrose tristearate
Shea butter (extended)
Sucrose stearate
Sulphonated Methyl Esters​ 
Synthetic beeswax
TEA-lauryl sulphate
Temest 2 EHC (Ethylhexyl Cocoate)
Temest 2 EHP (Ethylhexyl Palmitate)
Temest 2 EHS (Ethylhexyl Stearate)
Temest 810 (Caprylic/Capric Triglyceride)
Temest 99 (Isononyl Isononanonate)
Temest ALB (C12 15 Alkyl Benzoate)
Temest CTE (Cetearyl Ethylhexanoate)
Temest CTN (Cetearyl Isononanoate)
Temest DO (Decyl Oleate)
Tetradecylocadecyl myristate
Tetrasodium glutamate diacetate
Tocopheryl linoleate
Triacetin (1518)
Tridecyl myristate
Triple Pressed Stearic Acid
Veg Emulse
Vegetable Emulsifier
Vegetable glycerine
Vegetable gum (466)
vegetable mono diglycerides
vegetable oil
Vit A
Zinc myristate 
Zinc stearate

Find and certified-sustainable palm oil or palm oil-free replacements. And make your own too!

One of the best ways to ensure you are not supporting unsustainable palm oil is to make things yourself. That way you know exactly what is in them, plus you reduce your dependence on pre-packaged products — a bonus for less plastic consumption. They also end up costing less and being healthier usually too.

You’d be surprised what can be home-made: from ‘magnum’- type ice-creams to fabric softener, from jam tarts and ‘oreos‘, to dish soap and foundation! But I know that very few people can make everything from scratch, so getting savvy as a consumer is vital too.

Boycotting Palm Oil

If you’d like to boycott palm oil, shopping at dedicated palm-oil free stores is the easiest way to go. They have done the research already and have committed to not supporting the industry. My favourite Australian store Biome is completely palm-oil free, as are other stores and brands around the world listed on Palm Oil Investigations.

The International Palm Oil Free Certification Accreditation Programme (POFCAP) is a relatively new and the first attempt at recognised worldwide accreditation. So far POFCAP is approved to certify in 9 countries: Australia, Northern Ireland, Wales, Scotland, England, Spain, Austria, Sweden & the USA. Another 9 countries have applications pending. This is their logo:

International Palm Oil Free Certification Accreditation Programme

At the supermarket, a palm-oil scanner app can be helpful. RSPO an app for their certified products, and Palm Smart covers the US and Canada, and soon the UK also. I have used the POI scanner in the past which was available for Australia and New Zealand, but is not available at present. There are some others available too, but you will have to try them out to see how effective they are.

Another easy way is to support products which have their own ‘palm oil-free’ labels. Some brands like this vegan margarine have one line that is free from palm oil, which alerts you to the fact that their other lines do contain palm oil (disguised as ‘vegetable oil’). The palm-oil free products can be a little more expensive, as other oils cost more to produce.

Margarine ingredient comparison

If you’d like more help, The 28 Day Palm Oil Challenge is designed to get you into living deforestation-free within a month. It contains many recipe ideas and recommended brands for each room of the house that are free from palm oil.

And Kate of the Travel for Difference blog has a great list that she has researched in 2017, covering hundreds of products over many categories (including vitamins and pet care) that are palm-oil free.

Certified Sustainable Palm Oil

If you would like to support sustainable palm oil, keep an eye out for the following certification logos:

RSPO certified logo

These are the only logos from RSPO for which you can be assured that the palm oil contained within the product is 95% or more sustainable. POI shows their other logos here, some of which refer to a smaller percentage of sustainability, or simply membership of the RSPO.

rainforest alliance logo

The Rainforest Alliance works with palm oil producers as well as other industries, to help them transition to sustainable growing and processing methods. Products displaying this logo come from plantations that do not clear any existing rainforest, and work in harmony with the surrounding natural resources. These plantations are audited annually against Rainforest Alliance criteria.

Lend your voice to movements urging change to the palm oil industry.

We can all get behind movements to show the big producers that we don’t want deforestation and continued harm just for the convenience of cheap oil.

If you can’t find information about your favourite product’s stance on palm oil, call or email them. Your are entitled to know as a consumer, and if they cannot provide you with a clear answer, they are very likely supporting unsustainable palm oil. You can also contact a brand you love that does contain palm oil, and express your concern about it (respectfully). The more people who do this, the more they will take notice.

You can also sign petitions with thousands of other people around the world, and share them with others too. Here are some of the biggest ones around at present:

Give your time and/or money to causes you care about

You can go a step further if you feel strongly about this issue, by volunteering or making a donation to a reputable organisation. Some suggestions I’ve come across in my research (but have not personally tried) include:

Resources for kids to lean about palm oil and deforestation

  • This edition of the Global Guardian Project is a great resource for children to begin learning about rainforest conservation, and includes information about palm oil.
  • Ogangutan Foundation International has some educational guides about orangutans available for free.
  • This short video from Greenpeace is child-friendly and a great introduction to some of the issues with palm oil production.
  • The Dr Seuss book and movie “The Lorax” is an excellent introduction to environmentalism, and deforestation in particular. While it’s not referencing the palm oil industry, its message is applicable to all companies who put money ahead of ethics and the greater good. This song from the movie encapsulates it well:


I hope this post gives you a great overview of the issues with palm oil production, and ideas for what you can do about it. Please talk to others about your concerns, and share this post as well as other information you come across to keep raising awareness and promoting change. And thank you for all of your efforts to make a difference. I’d love to hear about what you’re doing or what you’re going to start on.

This post featured in A Green and Rosie Life Going Green link up, February 2019.

Pin this post for future reference:

The palm oil industry is well-known for destroying orangutan's habitats, but it is endangering other animals further too. And it also has many negative effects on humans. Read this post for more details on what is wrong with palm oil, and what we can do about it. Included are resources for your students/kids too. #palmoil #endangeredspecies #savetheorangutans #savethetigers #savetherhinos #humanrights #savetheelephants #environmentThe palm oil industry is huge and palm oil is in nearly everything we buy. Why is this a bad thing? And will boycotting palm oil achieve anything? Read on for more and many resources for you and your kids/students. #palmoil #sustainable #ethical #environment #humanrights #savetheorangutans #endangeredspecies

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25 Responses

  1. Wow this is an incredibly thorough and thoughtful post about all the problems with palm oil. I appreciate how you don’t just leave us with a feeling of despair over the situation, but give constructive suggestions for what we can do to affect change and find alternatives.

    • Emma says:

      Thank you Hilary, that’s what I was hoping to achieve. We have some power in this and must take some action if we want it to be different.

  2. Canilla says:

    Such an informative read. I already avoid palm oil but this gives me even more reasons to do so. And more info to share with family and friends ! I will bookmark it to come back to it if I need to refresh my memory 🙂

    • Emma says:

      Thanks Camilla, and good on you for doing something about palm oil already. I’m so pleased the post is helpful for you to continue to refer to.

  3. I try to boycott palm oil where-ever I can. I make as much of my own food from scratch as I can, use minimal toiletries and no cosmetics but I know it is still in products I buy/use. I do regularly contact manufacturers about palm oil yet all I ever really get back is corporate blurb and a smug sentence telling me it’s all OK as the palm oil they use is sustainable – but it can’t all be sustainable and I am unsure exactly what THEY mean by sustainable . I also know that the plantations are both vital for giving jobs to the local community and the land cannot simply be switched back to rainforest. In an ideal world I would see all deforestation for agriculture stopped outright (and forests are not just cleared for palm oil) and a complete cleaning up of the whole industry, bringing in fair working conditions etc. plus a switch back to where everyone is less reliant on processed food, excessive amounts of toiletries etc etc. I know that is as likely to happen as me getting a reply from a big company saying that their palm oil comes from recently deforested forest so I would at moment settle for some transparent information on where any palm oil comes from and that any that comes my way is truly sustainable ie from well established plantations, reduced pesticide use or ideally organic, fair working conditions etc. For the future of the rainforests and our planet we need a massive switch in the entire way we lead our lives with a much deeper understanding of how everything we do has far reaching effects on the planet.

    • Emma says:

      Thanks for your thoughts Rosie. I tend to agree that what we hope and think should happen is unlikely, for rainforests and for the majority of people’s habits. But we do need big change in this and many other industries to recover the planet and ensure its healthy future.

  4. Tegan says:

    Wow, this is a fantastic info-packed read. Thank you.

    I am concerned about the awful impacts of palm oil production, but I have not been able to bring myself to try to boycott it, as it is just so everywhere. I also worry that if everyone did boycott it, the companies would just use another crop for oil which would take even more land and clear even more forest habitat.

    As I see it, the problem is not palm oil per se, but deforestation, and unsustainable business practices and human rights violations and habitat destruction. Those will surely happen with another cash crop if not palm. So we should try to tackle this at its root. Definitely agree we should be contacting the companies about this, in huge numbers so they cannot ignore! And support the NGOs you mention which are doing great work to track what’s actually going on (beyond corporate pledges!) and driving better action.

    Also, I had no idea Indonesia is the third biggest emitter thanks to this. Wow.

    Thanks again for an excellent post!

    • Emma says:

      Thanks for your feedback Tegan. Yes, the issues stem from companies being able to bribe governments and having no care for anything and anyone except making money. Changing that will change many things in the world. I hope our combined action is enough to force those changes.

  5. My goodness! What an amazing post! I learnt something in the first two lines. There was me thinking that I was avoiding palm oil by choosing my peanut butter carefully. But no! This is just scary! Thank you for educating me today!

  6. This is such a great and super informative post! I have one very similar and it’s great to see so many people spreading such an important message 🧡

    My personal opinion is definitely to boycott. Yes, other oils that would replace it could potentially cause just as much land destruction to produce a similar quantity, but if we choose to consume wholesome diets and use organic natural products than it is easy to avoid both!

    Obviously that isn’t realistic for everyone, so in that case choosing the sustainable alternative is much better 🙌🏼 Trying our best is what’s most important 🌟

    • Emma says:

      Hi Kate, thanks for your feedback. I love your post about palm-oil free products in so many categories, it was very helpful to link to. You must’ve done so much research!
      I agree with you that choosing more natural products (and less stuff) and making much more ourselves is always going to be better. Hopefully more and more people can see the value in that, or make informed choices that don’t harm the planet or its inhabitants.

  7. Amanda says:

    This is a really thorough blog post, thank you! I’ll be saving this for reference 🙂

  8. Clive says:

    Thanks Emma. This is a very thorough reference about issues around palm oil

  9. Reese Moore says:

    I honestly hadn’t looked into palm oil yet though it’s on my list to do so, and this post was incredibly eye-opening. Thank you so much for sharing – AND for writing such an in-depth post. It means a lot to know where you’ve sourced your information as well!!

  10. chickenruby says:

    wow that’s a hell of a list to avoid, it would take forever to check each label in a supermarket shop, I’m going to start doing my best to buy alternatives where I can #goinggreen

    • Emma says:

      That’s a great thing to be doing! It is a huge list and it’s almost impossible to boycott it personally, completely. If you sign petitions you are helping in a great way too, lending your voice to bigger movements.

  11. Wow great overview. Funnily enough I was speaking to a goat milk soap maker (long story) only the other day about the issues of certified palm oil and is it just greenwash. Do you think some of the certifications can be misleading to consumers and companies will jump on the sustainable band wagon when in reality it is no different than before? #GoingGreenLinky