For just being a common consumer good ingredient, palm oil has caused quite the stir in recent years. Known for its prevalence in everything from processed snacks to laundry detergent, this “unassuming” vegetable oil has become infamous for the role that it plays in the systematic destruction of the world’s rainforests.

In fact, it is estimated that around 300 football fields of forest are cleared every hour to make way for palm oil plantations and there are very few signs that indicate this level of destruction will slow down anytime soon. As consumers are made more aware of the devastating impact that palm oil production has had on the world’s rainforests and the many animals who call these rainforests home, they have started to demand more accountability from the brands they purchase. In response, many companies have joined the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), a not-for-profit organization that works with brands and corporations that use palm oil to develop and implement global standards for sustainable palm oil.

In the past, there was very little regulation in the palm oil industry and producers were free to clear-cut forests without consequence. As a result of this, the orangutan population in the Indonesian islands of Borneo and Sumatra have lost around 90 percent of their native habitat and over 50,000 individuals have died in the past two decades. And this is only one of MANY negative impacts that palm oil production has had in the region.

Enter “Sustainable” Palm Oil…

RSPO aims to end this sort of unmitigated destruction and many companies have proudly signed on to source their palm oil in accordance with these standards. While conscious consumers may have avoided products that use palm oil altogether in the past, because of the RSPO seal, some are starting to purchase from brands who adhere to these “sustainable” practices. Who says you can’t have your cake (containing palm oil) and eat it too!

But, it appears that things aren’t quite as simple and carefree as RSPO compliant companies would like it to seem. There has been a lot of speculation over whether or not the RSPO seal actually means that “better” practices are being used to source palm oil and as a recent influx of membership terminations may illustrate, “sustainable” palm oil may, in fact, be too good to be true.

This past February, RSPO suspended 61 members and terminated 15 for their failure to comply with the required reporting standards. The 15 members that were terminated reportedly failed to submit mandatory annual reports for three years in a row! Yet, they all continued to brandish the sustainable palm oil label unabashedly. It’s kind of like walking around in a lab coat and hoping people just assume you’re a doctor.

Companies including Seventh Generation, Hain Celestial Group (owner of Alba Botanica, West Soy, and Rice Dream to name a few), Sun Products Corporation (makers of All, Snuggle, and Cuddle Soft), have been suspended due to their lack of transparency. This is especially shocking to consumers who look to Seventh Generation and the brands under the Hain Celestial Group umbrella to help them make “better” decisions when it comes to animal welfare and environmental impact.

Although these brands have been effectively suspended from RSPO since mid-February, there has been little to no publicity about this development. Technically these brands might not be allowed to brandish the RSPO seal on their products anymore, but consumers have already started to associate these household names with their commitment to sustainability and are likely unaware that anything has even changed!

While we are glad to see RSPO finally putting its foot down and strengthening the standards for companies and brands alike, we have to admit we’re a bit disappointed by the lack of transparency shown by the brands themselves. Choosing to commit to better, more “sustainable” practices should not be taken lightly. When faced with the reality that we are losing an enormous amount of vital rainforest and putting countless animal species in danger of extinction, we cannot afford to settle for labels that are little more than “greenwash.”

We can only hope that these suspensions and terminations turn into real improvement for supply chains. Consumers deserve better and the animals of the world certainly do as well.

Image source: Ilkerender/Flickr