Could a new palm oil free certificate help rainforests?

It’s not just orangutans. The palm oil industry is rife with human rights abuses, including child labour. Image:

It’s not just orangutans. The palm oil industry is rife with human rights abuses, including child labour. Image:


Earlier this month, more than 90 investors - increasingly jumpy about the risks of deforestation on their portfolios - called for stronger provisions for certifying the sustainable production of palm oil. A letter to the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) asked the certification body to strengthen its standards for certifying palm oil and to include more robust protections.

The move follows growing concerns that the RSPO, set up by the WWF in 2004, lacks teeth. A report by University of Queensland researchers cast doubt on whether RSPO certification is making any real wins in sustainable palm oil production. Damningly, researchers found no difference in orangutan decline between certified and non-certified plantations. Meanwhile, palm oil is in about half of all packaged products sold in the supermarket, with its production threatening some of the planet’s most important and sensitive habitats.

Now, another body is stepping into the landscape, offering another possible option to saving rainforests. Launched last year, the Palm Oil Free Certification Trademark (POFCAP) is designed to help consumers see at a glance if a product, company or process contains palm oil. 

So far, 787 products are now certified palm oil free while 19 companies have been certified, including the UK vitamin company Viridian asks POFCAP is outline the most pressing issues surrounding the production of palm oil and, most importantly, what consumers can do now to help.

Palm oil can be found in about half of all supermarket products.. Picture:  Fancycrave  on  Unsplash

Palm oil can be found in about half of all supermarket products.. Picture: Fancycrave on Unsplash

There are varied opinions about palm oil, from demonising the crop, to it not actually being the problem. What’s the truth?

The plant isn’t the problem; it’s the method of production. Currently, most palm oil is grown in an unsustainable way, causing massive deforestation. Often, the precious rainforest is felled and the wood sold to fund the development of the plantation. In addition, deforestation occurs via illegal logging, coal mining and the clearing of forest to support livestock. It is the combination of these activities that will see the remaining rainforests of the world lost for their timber and land. Once that happens, the planet will be a very different place. THAT is the truth. 

What’s the best way to protect the rainforests from the effects of palm oil production?

Whilst POFCAP would like to see 100% of all palm oil produced in a certified sustainable way, it’s a daunting task. The RSPO was initiated in 2004, fourteen years ago, but, still, only a small percentage of palm oil is said to be produced in a certified sustainable way. This is because the RSPO does not have enough power. If it was mandatory by law that all palm oil companies had to be RSPO members, it would have much more influence over the behaviour of these companies. It would be able to enforce regulations and impose heavier penalties. But it’s not mandatory so change is slow. Protecting the world's rainforests requires a multi-pronged approach, including sustainable palm oil - from many organisations, NGO’s and governments.

Some argue that palm oil is actually the most sustainable vegetable available. It grows fast and requires less land … 

Palm oil industries would like you to believe that so that they can grab the biggest percentage of the edible oil market. Yes, palm oil may have the highest yield by far of any oil seed crop but this calculation ignores the heavy costs that come with it: the risks to the health and safety of plantation workers, human rights abuses, the loss of forest homes and livelihoods of the native peoples, massive deforestation, the pollution from forest burn offs (as far away as Singapore), the loss of flora and fauna species and the fall out effect on the planet via global warming and climate change. If ALL these costs were factored in, would it still be the cheapest oil in the world? No.

Is palm oil production the biggest cause of deforestation?

Animal agriculture, wood products, and soy production are bigger causes. In the Amazon, 91 per cent of deforestation is caused by animal agriculture. If you care about the deforestation caused by palm oil production, you should care about deforestation caused by animal agriculture. For example, 94 per cent of soybeans grown worldwide is turned into feedstock for animal agriculture; only 6 per cent is turned directly into human food products. If we want to protect rainforests, we need to reduce our consumption of the things which cause it: meat and dairy, palm oil, rainforest wood products.

Isn’t palm oil necessary for the products that use them? 

Human and animal conflict over land and resources in palm oil lead to casualties and orphans. Picture: Greenpeace.

Human and animal conflict over land and resources in palm oil lead to casualties and orphans. Picture: Greenpeace.

Many palm oil-free products have not replaced palm oil with another oil; they’ve just found others ways to make their products. Replacing palm oil with another oil of lower yield really only applies to edible cooking oil. Research is currently being conducted on alternatives ways of creating surfactants and emulsifiers, using all sorts of things from yeast to algae to mushrooms and bacteria.  

Why is palm oil so hard to avoid? 

It’s nearly impossible for the ordinary person to know which products contain palm oil and which don’t. Palm oil is turned into thousands of derivatives; most of those ingredient names don’t even contain the word ‘palm’. Since 2009, we’ve been researching over 600 potential palm oil derivatives without palm oil in their name: … This is why we developed the new International Palm Oil free Certification Trademark - so that people know that, when they see our certification trademark on a product, it is absolutely palm oil and palm oil derivative-free and that it has been independently -and thoroughly - assessed. 

What can ordinary people do to help protect the rainforests and their wildlife from destructive palm oil development? 

1. Reduce their consumption of palm oil – supply = demand – familiarise yourself with which ingredients are potentially palm oil derivatives there are 1,000’s … 

2. Reduce your consumption of meat and dairy - and eat less processed food.  Choose only recycled paper products or paper products from sustainable sources. Are you flushing rainforest trees down your toilet every day?  

3. Use more natural products with fewer ingredients. You don’t need a make-up remover product that contains many ingredients - including some palm oil derivatives - when you can just use virgin coconut oil. 

4. If people do choose to use products which contain palm oil, they should choose products which have used IP CSPO or seg CSPO ( 2 types of certified sustainable palm oil). Contact the company to find out; if they don’t use CSPO, let them know that until they do you will switch to another product. Unless consumers demand change the companies won’t necessary initiate it themselves.

5. Lobby big companies to switch to IP CSPO or seg CSPO and boycott them until they do. Supply = Demand.

6. Donate and support some of the NGO’s in Indonesia and Malaysia, where 85 per cent of palm oil is grown, who are working to protect the rainforest and wildlife. They get no government funding and rely on donations to do their work. There are 8 here on our Partner Projects page … 

7. Sign petitions.

8. Don’t think somebody else will do it. If you care, get pro-active. 

9. Educate. Spread the word to those who have no idea there is even a problem. 

10. Head to the International Palm Oil Free Certification Trademark website or social media pages and check out all of the products that have been certified palm oil-free so far. Follow the page for updates.

Greenpeaace Indonesia.jpg

In the news: campaigners are asking Pepsi and Nestlé to drop palm oil business partner  Indonesian joint venture partner and palm oil offender, Indofood, known for irresponsible practices including the use of child labor on palm oil plantations.and destroying the rainforest. They’re also asking the RSPO to stop dragging its heels, enforce its standards and drop palm oil suppliers like Indofoods who exploit workers and planet and destroy rainforests and animals. Sign the petition here