An FAQ for those who might be unfamiliar with the palm oil problem:
What is palm oil?
The term 'palm oil' refers to an edible vegetable oil derived from the fruit pulp of African oil palm. It is incredibly versatile and can either be used as 'vegetable oil' in food products or transformed into another ingredient, called a derivative, in any other product in your home. Palm oil crops have a very high yield but, can only thrive 10 degrees north or south of the equator — an incredibly biorich stretch of land.
Why is it bad?
Right now, palm oil is troubling for a number of reasons. Primarily, it incites rapid deforestation of precious, irreplaceable land. The versatility we mentioned before means that it is in high demand, so land is cleared and farmed accordingly. What is "high demand"? Fifty million tonnes of palm oil is produced annually to fill roughly half of the products you buy in stores. Alongside deforestation, and our primary reason for starting this magazine, is animal endangerment. The majority of palm oil used is produced in Indonesia and Malaysia, home to unique wild populations of orangutans, rhinos, sun bears, elephants, clouded leopards, and proboscis monkeys, all of which are under the threat of becoming extinct as a result of the palm oil industry.
Palm oil also deeply affects the environment. When just 1 hectare carbon-rich peatland is cleared, up to 6,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere. Worse still, "ponds of wastewater at palm oil refineries release immense amounts of methane" which is "34 times more potent than carbon dioxide" (Source). The most recent fires exceeded Germany's annual greenhouse emissions in the timespan of only 3 weeks.
Due to the industry's size and untamed growth, indigenous peoples are also pushed out and displaced for access to farmable land. Simultaneously, industry workers are often overworked, mislead, underpaid, subject to poor conditions, and much more.
Finally, it is too fiercely unregulated. Recent reports from the EIA detail that plantation auditors are "failing to identify and mitigate unsustainable practices by oil palm firms." Adding that "in some instances auditors actually collude with plantation companies to disguise violations of the RSPO Standard." Furthermore, only 20% of the world's palm oil is "certified," mostly through disappointing supply chain systems (See What About The RSPO?).
Despite efforts to control the industry, conflict palm oil remains a huge threat to the environment, wildlife, human rights, and overall health of the world.
I checked my [insert item] and I don't see "palm oil" written anywhere?
Palm oil will not always be labeled as such. In most countries, it can pass under the term "vegetable oil." If you're looking at toothpaste, shampoo, detergent, lotion, mascara, or any other item, then palm oil will likely take the form of a derivative like glycerin, emulsifiers, stearates, etc.
For a full list of names to look for click here.
What about the RSPO?
The Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil is an organization founded in 2004 with the aim to regulate the palm oil industry and put an eventual end to deforestation and wildlife endangerment.
While we admit that there must be a governing body for the industry, we are deeply critical of the RSPO and what it ultimately accomplishes with its "sustainable palm oil supply chain" systems. The RSPO does enable greenwashing vis--vis GreenPalm certificates and we largely don't support these practices. For example, Unilever can claim to customers, via the RSPO, that they used 14,495.23 tonnes of 100% segregated, sustainable palm oil from 2013-2014. Great.
This claim is beleaguered, however, by Unilever's consumption of 1,501,578 tonnes of palm oil in the form of GreenPalm certificates, meaning that the origin of said palm oil is unknown and likely born of conflict (Source). When you are told that this company uses certified sustainable palm oil in an e-mail, however, that latter fact is not made clear. Read more about this break in communication and the misuse of the term CSPO, here.
Basically, the RSPO has a long, long way to go. We do hope, however, that someday we can fully rely on them to regulate the industry, perhaps with the aid of the POIG.
Should we boycott all palm oil then?
This is a tricky subject. As a publication, we do not advocate for a blanket boycott of palm oil. Truly traceable and "sustainable" palm oil is the next step, whichever side of the fence you're on. Agreeing upon a singular, satisfactory definition of sustainable is an entirely different issue though.
We do, however, boycott conflict palm oil in all forms and think you should, too — See Why Is It Bad? section for guidelines. If it's not ethical, you really don't have to buy it.
Okay. What can I do?
Second, implement a few key changes into your lifestyle:
We, as a society, have grown dependent on palm oil because we eat an incredible amount of processed and packaged food. Even items we would all regard as 'health food,' too! Companies like Pepsico, Silk, Daiya, and Unilever absolutely must get their act together, because it's the responsible thing to do — period. But that doesn't mean you should necessarily eat those products once they have...
One of the main pillars of this magazine is a vegan, plant-forward diet, centered around whole foods. It's easy, delicious, and low-impact, especially when we eat organic and locally. For everything else, like makeup and lotion, choose palm oil free items because they're widely available in the U.S. It's really as simple as that.
Oh! And read Selva Beat, if you like ☻