The Truth about Sustainable Palm Oil

Clear cut #1. Palm Oil Plantation, Borneo, Malaysia. 2016 . Image: Edward Burtynsky, The Anthropocene Project .

Clear cut #1. Palm Oil Plantation, Borneo, Malaysia. 2016. Image: Edward Burtynsky, The Anthropocene Project.


We’ve been reading a sustainable lifestyle blog called Sustainable Jungle, run by Lyall and Joy, and we’ve really appreciated their clear-eyed view on complex issues. Here, Sustainable Jungle asks: ‘Sustainable Palm Oil - Is This a Real Solution?’

Back in 2004, in an effort to curb [the unsustainable growth of the palm oil industry], various stakeholders including growers, producers, retailers, manufactures, traders and NGOs formed a voluntary not-for-profit association called the “Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil” (RSPO). The RSPO’s stated objective is to promote the growth and use of sustainable palm oil products through global standards and stakeholder engagement.

To achieve this, the RSPO established a set of global principles and criteria to be followed, like transparency, compliance with local laws and regulations, environmental responsibility and conservation of natural resources. Growers are then audited by independent bodies against these criteria and, if found to be compliant, they can then certify their palm oil plantations as RSPO certified, allowing them and the companies who purchase their palm oil produce to use the RSPO logo. Currently, this is the gold-standard in sustainable palm oil.

Problem solved? Sadly, no…

Unfortunately, there is still a long long way to go before we have a truly sustainable palm oil industry. With that being said, many pundits have put forward various arguments for and against the use of ‘sustainable palm oil’ and the RSPO certification which we’ve summarized below. As you will see it’s a pretty controversial topic.


  • In reality, the production of sustainable palm oil under the RSPO is a fiction. Greenpeace published a thoroughly well-researched yet damning report into the current state of affairs. Some of the largest members of the RSPO who supposedly produce and sell ‘sustainable’ palm oil routinely flout the laws and rules which they are supposed to abide by. The result is that large companies who claim to only use sustainable palm oil in their products are in fact selling a lie to the public.

  • Another in-depth and hard-hitting report published by the Environmental Investigation Agency and Grassroots shows that, not only are the assessments undertaken by the auditing firms (who are tasked with ensuring members of the RSPO are not destroying primary forests) substandard but there is strong evidence which indicates that they are colluding with plantation companies to conceal violations. The report also states that the consequences of these actions are a proliferation of the destruction of the rain forests and biodiversity, entrenched social conflicts, human trafficking and death threats against anyone who tries to defend the environment. This is utterly depressing considering the RSPO and the auditing firms are essentially the last line of defence in the destruction of wildlife and rain forests in key areas.

  • The RSPO has no teeth. In an article written by The Orang Utan Republik Foundation, there is clear evidence that the RSPO cannot enforce its rules or properly sanction its large corporate members. In fact, in some rather black and white cases it appears that the RSPO even chooses not to enforce its own rules and regulations. As a result, these organisations simply use the RSPO certification as a marketing gimmick to pay lip service to the public that they’re doing something about the problem when in fact it couldn’t be further from the truth.

  • RSPO’s rules and regulations are only as robust as the most conservative and conflicted members will allow. For example, the rules state that any forest that is not “high-value conservation forest can be removed. Not only does this sound like an astoundingly low bar, how you define “high value” is, well,THEIRopen to interpretation.

  • The process of palm oil extraction, processing and distribution is very complex and non-transparent. There are four different certification categories for RSPO. Two of which (Identity Preserved and Segregated) are traceable to a single or multiple certified sustainable source. The third (Mass Balance) is a mix of sustainable palm oil and ordinary palm oil. In this case, a consumer can never be sure that whatever they’re buying is truly sustainable. And the fourth category, known as Greenpalm, has no requirement for the supply chain to be monitored. The purchaser simply buys a Green Palm Certificate which is used to subsidize the certified grower and offset their continued use of conventional palm oil. It’s easy to see why this category in particular has been labelled as ‘greenwashing’. Unfortunately, the sale of Greenpalm Certificates still accounts for the majority of the physical sales (see page 47 of the 2016 Impact Report) of certified palm oil.

  • There are over 200 ingredients that contain palm oil which, given poor labeling, makes it almost impossible for consumers to know what exactly it is they’re buying.


  • Substituting palm oil for other vegetable oils is not a practical solution. Other vegetable oils are much less efficient (they would require more land for cultivation) and as a result would create larger environmental and social problems.

  • The palm oil industry provides jobs to those in producing countries which reduces poverty. Ceasing production of palm oil would create significant problems for those who are currently benefiting.

  • Palm oil is not going anywhere. Asia and the Middle East account for the largest chunk of palm oil consumption but the demand for sustainable palm oil and the protection of tropical rain forests is driven by the West. If the West stops consuming palm oil then companies would no longer have the incentive to purchase it from sustainable growers. Without this incentive, the palm oil industry would essentially go back to its lawless pre-2004 and pre-RSPO state and the disappearance of our rain forests would accelerate until there is nothing left.

  • Condemning the whole palm oil industry is unrealistic so the best we can hope and plan for is sustainable palm oil.

In light of the above, it’s pretty clear that the gold standard of sustainable palm oil is not as credible as its marketing may suggest. In fact, it’s really just lip service, which in the context of the drive for growth and profit is, well…not surprising. This is no more evident than when you look at the fine print of “Unilever’s journey to 100% Sustainable Palm Oil”, which pledges (by virtue of the New York Declaration on Forests) to end forest loss by 2030.


In a collaborative report between the Clinton Global Initiative and AT Kearney, the proposed solution is a combination of elements. Sustainable palm oil, substitution using existing vegetable oils and the development of a new generation of oils. We cannot rely on a single bullet to solve this problem.

As far as our strategy concerning palm oil goes, we think the best solution is to avoid palm oil AND sustainable palm oil. We’re not saying that sustainable palm oil is not part of the solution. Indeed, it has to be simply because it is the most efficient oil seed crop. We just believe that the current concentration of demand on palm oil needs to be diluted.  It’s also not always necessary to have palm oil or similar ingredients in our products. For example, we think peanut butter tastes so much better with just a  single ingredient (peanuts) than it does with palm oil, sugar, salt, etc. added.

In the short term and until truly sustainable palm oil can be absolutely guaranteed, the most effective action we can take is to choose products (cosmetics, food etc.) that do not contain any palm oil (wherever possible). By doing this, we’re not only sending an unequivocal message that we won’t accept unethical products but we’re also giving the rain forests a bit of respite and a chance, however small that might be.”

The Sustainable Jungle is creating a place to encourage and galvanize positive change in the world. Lyall and Joy share their own personal story as well as those of people and organizations doing meaningful work to make the world a better place. The site showcases all things sustainable and ethical, from travel and lifestyle to beauty and fashion, supporting a community of readers who want to learn about and live a more deliberate, purposeful and conscious life. What underpins Sustainable Jungle is the belief that we all have enormous power to positively shape our environment through the ideas, organizations, and people we choose to support. If you have questions/comments/anecdotes or other suggestions for the Sustainable Jungle Community, get in touch!


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