In recent weeks, I’ve found myself squinting at the small print on packaging labels, more so than usual – and not for recycling info but this time for any mention of the ingredient palm oil.
My curiosity has been triggered by one of the current social media campaigns that’s building on Twitter and Facebook, #GoodBadPalmOil, highlighting the environmental and social impacts of the production of palm oil, and the urgent need for better and more sustainable practices.
You don’t have to dig far to realise the scale of demand and the extent of the issue. Firstly, it’s everywhere. Over 50 percent of supermarket products contain palm oil, including margarine, chocolate products, donuts, biscuits and ice-cream. And it’s not just food, it’s also a popular ingredient in soaps, detergents and make-up. In fact, around 70 percent of the world’s cosmetics and household detergents contain raw materials sourced from palm oil. Globally, over 13 million tonnes is consumed but only 21 percent of this resource is certified from sustainable sources.
Like many aspects of production, when you start to dig deeper, the true cost of what’s on our shelves starts to become rather unpalatable and palm oil production has a starring role for all the wrong reasons. With increasing demand for the product, its production has led to devastating impacts on the environment and on local people, including large-scale deforestation, leading to loss of habitat for endangered species as well as soil erosion and soil and water pollution. Displacement of people, who live and work in the forest and destruction of other agricultural enterprises also brings economic problems and social conflict in communities.
The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), the international organisation behind the #GoodBadPalmOil campaign, believes that achieving 100% certified sustainable palm oil (CSPO) in Europe is not only a realistic ambition but a vital one too. It wants to bring an end to the destructive production of ‘bad’ palm oil and develop more sustainable, ‘good’ palm oil production in order to support local communities with fair working conditions, better farming techniques and help to protect valuable species and forests.
With such controversy over a single ingredient, it makes me wonder whether it would be more sustainable for manufacturers to substitute palm oil with an alternative. Unfortunately this isn’t without issues either. It appears that replacing palm oil with other types of vegetable oil (e.g. sunflower, soybean or rapeseed oil) would require even more land. Palm trees produce four to ten times more oil than other crops per unit of cultivated land, so in comparison with other vegetable oil production, palm oil is deemed to be more efficient.
I admit that until now – with the exception of campaigns such as Fair Trade and more recently, Fashion Revolution - I have, like millions of other people, been pretty much unaware of many other distant practices and commercial decisions that go into the production of some of my favourite brands. With serious impacts at stake, I’ll now be adding sustainable palm oil to my watch-list.
Meanwhile, the good news from RSPO is that they are already starting to see change. The organisation is working across the whole industry - from farmers to grocery stores - to get everyone working towards sustainable palm oil. Thirteen countries now have RSPO certified producers, equating to 3.6 million hectares of land, and many companies are displaying the RSPO trademark on their product packaging. Examples can be found at http://www.rspo.org/trademark/trademark-products-gallery.
If you’d like to find out more about the Good Bad Palm Oil campaign, visit goodbadpalmoil.org. On social media you can also follow the work of RSPO on Twitter @rspotweets and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/RSPO.org/