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Cultivating, harvesting and processing palm oil is big business. However, this $44 billion industry has wreaked havoc on forests, caused steep declines in animal populations, has encouraged child labor and is contributing to Climate change. The palm oil industry is a recipe for environmental, social and long-term economic disaster.

Over 50 percent of processed goods contain palm oil, including, healthy, vegan and organic products — it’s in nearly everything, from soaps and cleaning products, to margarine and dog food. It’s a troubling discovery at first, especially since us Green Monsters do our absolute best to live humane and green lifestyles, but don’t despair, change is upon us and the power to drive it is in our hands. There is an assemblage of working parts under the hood of the palm oil industry, below are just a few.

Putting Palm Oil In Perspective 


One in 32 of the world’s mammals are found in the Leuser Ecosystem, which is located on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. The Leuser Ecosystem is the last place on earth (yes, the last place in the entire universe) where the Sumatran Elephant, Sumatran Rhinoceros, Sumatran Tiger and Sumatran Orangutan are found living in the same area — all of these animals are on the brink of extinction and all because of the palm oil industry and the poaching associated with it. As if the critically endangered status of these animals wasn’t enough to cause uproar, carbon emissions are another reason for outrage.

Carbon Emissions

Organic wetland soils are drained in order to make way for palm plantations. The carbon, stored naturally underwater, decomposes once it is exposed to air. The decomposition of peat releases carbon dioxide (a green house gas) into the atmosphere. At 2,000 tons per year, it accounts for six percent of the global fossil-fuel emissions; Indonesia is responsible for 45 percent of that (900 tons). Deforestation is the cause of Indonesia’s high emission rates.

(Remember: Green house gases contribute to Global warming and Global warming contributes to the irreversible thaw of permafrost. Permafrost contains carbon, a lot of it, and if it thaws it could potentially release an amount near 15 percent of what is already emitted by us. This would accelerate the pace of Global warming. A less conservative estimate is 35 percent of today’s annual emissions. The clearing of these wetlands should not be taken lightly. The world is listening.)

The Haze

The most severe haze outbreak in Southeast Asia, to date, occurred this past year. The smoke from forest fires in Indonesia reached Singapore and Malaysia. The palm oil industry is behind these fires and this event has left many questioning the efficacy of RSPO’s role in the region, including Greenpeace. Critics want enforcement of RSPO’s guidelines and are concerned over their lack of enforcement.

The problem is that the lack of sanctions and penalties allow palm oil companies to avoid sustainability standards. The Palm Oil Innovation Group (POIG) recently set standards that are meant to build upon RSPO’s standards, in hopes to enforce sanctions and penalties — but much remains to be seen.

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil

RSPO is an organization that promotes the market of sustainable palm oil.  They are a membership-based organization comprised of oil palm growers, palm oil processors and traders, consumer goods manufacturers, environmental NGOs, social NGOs, banks and investors and retailers. They have 79 members in the U.S. and are the organization behind the certified sustainable palm oil, RSPO logo. Over 14 percent of palm oil produced today is certified by the RSPO. RSPO is the largest organization to promote sustainable palm oil.

Making Sustainable Claims

Green Palm is an organization that that works with RSPO to encourage the growth of the sustainable palm oil industry. A Green Palm logo certifies that a company supports the sustainable palm oil industry, though the company may not use sustainable palm oil in its own products. It’s a little confusing, but the idea is to give companies incentive to Support sustainable palm oil.

This model rewards the producers of sustainable palm oil by allowing them to sell Green Palm certificates in a public online marketplace; it allows companies to make claims to the consumer (that’s us) that they are aware of the market for sustainable palm oil and Support it. Again, bear in mind the fact that a company who makes these legitimate claims may not actually use sustainable palm oil in their products. While they are rewarding farmers of oil palms for sustainably growing and harvesting palm oil, other organizations are working toward managing the current damage.

Reversing the Irreversible

Wetlands International has been able to improve areas that have been nearly destroyed by the drainage of peat swamps. Their work involves the restoration of peatlands by constructing dams and by community outreach. They work with the Indonesian government to encourage strong policies to protect peatlands from the devastation caused by unsustainable palm oil farming, and they work with the palm oil industry to promote better management practices and help to ensure that local communities participate.

It All Comes Out In The Wash

The termgreenwashing” is being flung around, like mud — and rightfully so. Consumers are angry with Big Palm Oil and its contribution to the total devastation of forests, animal populations, communities and the environment. Green Monsters want these companies to be regulated, but what company truly wants more regulation and protocol?

Let’s Get Real

The palm oil industry isn’t going anywhere. Palm oil is a widely available and inexpensive commodity; it is also the economic backbone of many communities. Smallholders are farmers that harvest oil palm on a maximum of 50 hectares of land. These families are reliant upon the palm oil industry to Support their families, an industry that, according to the WWF, has the ability to lift people out of poverty. However, no matter how great an industry is, there are rules and they must be followed.

OK. Things Just Got Real

Recently, the palm oil company PT Kallista Alam was found guilty of illegally burning the Tripa peat forest, located in the Leuser Ecosystem. The company has been ordered to pay $9 million in compensation and roughly $21 million to restore the areas destroyed by the fires. About 5,700 hectares have been confiscated and PT Kallista Alam will have to pay $415 daily until they pay for the damages. The ruling is an incredibly important victory for those negatively impacted by the palm oil industry. It sends a clear message that offenses will not go unpunished.

Big companies are paying attention to the industry. Both Hershey and Unilever have pledged to use 100% traceable Palm Oil by the end of 2014, Starbucks by 2015. (Unilever is the manufacturer of Dove, Knorr, Lipton and is the founder of RSPO.) Other companies are switching locations.

All Eyes On Africa

Sustainable palm oil operations in Côte d’Ivoire hope to increase production rates by 50 percent by 2020. Côte d’Ivoire producers claim that their way of harvesting and cultivating oil palms is more sustainable because they do not use slash and burn techniques used throughout South East Asia. Nigeria is also making a bid to restart the mass production of palm oil and regain its title from the 1960s as the largest exporter in the world. Africa is poised to become a serious challenger to the Southeast Asian palm oil industry and companies are taking note. For example, Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps sources their palm oil, sustainably, from Ghana. Companies are listening, but it’s up to you, Green Monsters, to put your money where your mouth is.

Your Wallet Is Magical

Believe it or not, your wallet has magical powers — it speaks a universal language encoded in numbers and every time you purchase a product with palm oil that isn’t sustainable, it shouts, “Down with the rainforests!” On the flipside when you purchase products sources from 100 percent traceable, sustainable palm oil, it shouts, “Save the rainforests!”

If you don’t want to be bamboozled by big companies don’t let yourself be:

  • Inform yourself.
  • Avoid purchasing tropical hardwoods like teak.
  • Skip products with palm oil, unless it is clearly stated that it is from a sustainable source.
  • If you must use paper, only use FSC recycled paper.
  • Use OGP’s list of palm oil-free products as a shopping guide.
  • Forget the margarine and make your own palm oil-free butter.
  • Check out your country’s scorecard for palm oil sustainability.
  • Use Ethical Consumer’s product list as a guide.
  • Watch Unseen and the film Green to see the impact of deforestation on those who are affected.

Never, ever underestimate your power as a consumer. Actions speak louder than words, but nothing speaks louder than money, so on your next trip to the store to buy shampoo or ingredients for an epic vegan dessert, let your wallet do the talking.

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Image Source: Wikimedia Commons