The Truth About Palm Oil

Green Lifestyle

Become an instant expert on palm oil – identify where it's lurking in your lifestyle, and learn how to find sustainable choices.

palm oil

The oily palm oil fruit is grown in plantations that could wipe out 98 per cent of Indonesia's forests by 2022.

Harvested palm oil fruits

Harvested palm oil fruits – the oil from the seed is used to make palm oil for food products, but the saturated fat content is 51 per cent, so it's much less healthy to eat than canola, sunflower or olive oil.


After forests in Indonesia are deforested for illegal palm oil plantations, animals that are considered cute or furry – including baby orangutans like this one pictured – are often captured and sold into the illegal pet trade.

Credit: thinkstock


Camera traps set in a Sumartan rainforest by Deakin University students with RAW Wildlife Encounters revealed these curious pig-tailed macaques. Illegal palm oil deforestation is a problem in Sumatra as well as Indonesia.

Credit: Deakin University student tours with RAW Wildlife Encounters


The ridiculously cute slow loris lives in the Indonesian rainforests, but their habitat is disappearing as a result of palm oil plantations, and they're often captured for illegal tourism or to keep as pets.

Credit: thinkstock


A bill for compulsory labelling of palm oil products for ethical and health reasons was rejected in 2009 and 2011, however there are some companies that have voluntarily chosen to use responsibly-sourced palm oil, and supporting them helps to shift the entire market. Some good companies are pictured above, but for more, check out www.palmoilinvestigations.org


Look for RSPO-certified products, but be aware that the product may still have uncertified oil in it if the commitments of the company aren’t in place yet.

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Up to half of the products on our supermarket shelves contain palm oil. Usually referred to as simply ‘vegetable oil’, it’s mainly found in processed food, cleaning products, and almost all cosmetics. Illegal deforestation to grow palm plantations is happening at the most rapid rate ever seen on our planet – and it’s set to double in the next decade.

Although the palm oil tree – which is native to West Africa and Central and South America – can grow well in most tropical climates, 86 per cent of the global supply of palm oil is grown in Indonesia and Malaysia. Palm oil plantations are the main reason for the illegal destruction of the lowland forested peatlands of Indonesia
and Malaysia.

According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the equivalent of 300 football fields of rainforest is destroyed every hour in South-East Asia, and only two per cent of forest areas are expected to remain in Indonesia by 2022.

The problem begins as illegal logging – for timber, pulp and paper. Once the trees are cut down, the land is burned and palm oil companies plant the area with young palms. Regular burning has become a serious problem, with smoke from fires affecting air pollution in nearby cities such as Singapore last year. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that burning these precious peatland forests is releasing up to 70 tonnes of the greenhouse gas CO2 into the atmosphere every year.

This illegal deforestation can’t be regulated to ensure there are wildlife corridors or sanctuaries, meaning that pretty much all of the native animals are displaced or killed. Unfortunate interactions between animals and humans increase – hungry elephants come into villages, destroying buildings and young palm trees, and orangutans eat the palm tree fruits.

Any animals that are considered cute or furry – such as baby orangutans, pygmy elephants and the slow loris – are captured and sold into the illegal pet trade; others are baited and poisoned.

Moving toward sustainability

Some palm oil companies have become members of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), an industry association that links palm oil producers, retailers, financiers and manufacturers with non-government organisations and society.

According to Jess McKelson, supervisor of primates at Melbourne Zoo and international operations manager at the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme, despite some shortcomings, the RSPO is “making headway in the production and promotion of sustainable palm oil”. Established in 2004, the RSPO examines the problems inherent in the production of palm oil, and has established an accreditation system for ‘good’ palm oil.

To be considered RSPO-certified, one of the requirements is that a palm company cannot plant on forested areas that have been cleared after 2005. This means that only old palm or rubber plantations, or previously cleared land, can be planted with new palm oil plantations – not the illegally forested areas.

McKelson regularly visits the affected areas, working closely to help shift more palm oil production to RSPO-certified. “We’re showing that palm oil does not have to be landscape monoculture plantations owned by global multinationals; it can also be grown by smallholders, on their existing forested or degraded land. It can even be grown organically.”

“We’re attempting to hold producers accountable for illegal activities in their plantations. We’ve already had one illegal permit revoked and now several ongoing cases against companies for illegal use of fire to clear forested peatland habitats. We simply want existing laws enforced.”

Lorinda Jane is the founder of Palm Oil Investigations, a website and Facebook page run by volunteers who research whether a particular product in Australia has got palm oil in it, and whether it’s uncertified or certified as being from a sustainable source. Jane says that the problem with increasing sustainable palm oil production is to do with market value and consumer demand.

“The latest stats show that although 17 per cent of world supply is certified with the RSPO, only half of that is being purchased. The other 50 per cent is basically sitting rotting in warehouses – companies won’t buy it because they’ve got to pay a premium price.”

The WWF says 92 per cent of palm oil companies have made a commitment to be 100 per cent RSPO certified by 2015 or sooner, so there’s a lot of room for improvement.

Greenwashing in the industry

“A lot of brands can use the RSPO as a marketing tool without actually purchasing certified sustainable palm oil. A brand can use unsustainable oil, and as long as they’ve made a commitment to eventually go sustainable, say by 2015, they can still presently market their product as sustainable,” Jane says.

The few products that are listed as certified sustainable on the Palm Oil Investigations website are “ones that we get documentation for, so we can track that the actual supply is coming from a 100 per cent certified source”.

Detecting palm oil in products

“There are over 200 alternative names for palm oil,” says Jane. “And on that list of alternative names, the ingredient isn’t always going to be palm oil – so identifying palm oil is certainly not something that everyone can be expected to have time to look into.”

“Unfortunately, there are some palm products, like cetearyl alcohol, that there is no alternative source for. It can be made, but it’s just that no one is making it.”

“Personal care is a big issue. Shampoo is a really big one. We haven’t found an ethical shampoo yet that doesn’t have palm oil. It’s either petrochemicals, or it’s palm oil. We’ve stopped posting on our Facebook site about personal care at the moment because we just can’t offer an alternative.”

Later this year, Palm Oil Investigations will release an app that lets people scan the barcode of items to learn more about the palm oil they contain. “You’re going to be able to share the scan results to Facebook and Twitter, and be offered alternative products if it comes in as ‘uncertified’. If you’re not happy with the scan result you can hit ‘send’ to shoot off a generic email through to the company that says ‘I have just bypassed your product for a more ethical brand’. It’s going to be wonderful,” Jane says.

Check the label

Often used to prolong the shelf life of processed edible and non-edible products, palm oil is very versatile, so it can be listed as around 200 other names on a label. Here are a few common variations:
- Vegetable oil
- Elaeis guineensis or Elaeis oleifera (the palm tree species)
- Sodium lauryl/laureth sulphate (could also be derived from coconut oil)
- Cetearyl alcohol
- Palmate, palmitic acid or cetyl palmitate
- Glyceryl stearate
- Sodium kernelate

Choose these:

With so many names, inadequate labelling, and a slow path to commitment, the best choice is to vote with your wallet. Choose products that show certified documentation, or are palm-oil free – here are suggestions as a starting point. Continued pressure on governments and big brands may help stem the tide of destruction before it’s too late.

Truly certified sustainable palm products
- Sukin hair care, www.sukinorganics.com
- Dusk candles, www.dusk.com.au
- Earth Choice cleaning products, www.naturesorganics.com.au

Palm oil-free products
- Mountain Bread wraps, www.mountainbread.com.au
- Naturals by Melrose nut spreads, www.naturalsbymelrose.com
- Ceres Organics nut butters, www.ceresorganics.com.au
- Loving Earth chocolate, www.lovingearth.net
- Sindhiya soap nuts, www.soapnutssindhiya.com.au
- Argan Life soap, www.arganlife.com.au
- Mokosh skin care, www.mokosh.com.au

6 quick tips:

1. Check product labels for signs that they may contain palm oil and err on the side of caution.
2. Look for RSPO-certified products, but be aware that the product may still have uncertified oil in it if the commitments of the company aren’t in place yet.
3. Just because a soap or cleaning product doesn’t make a lot of foam, it doesn’t mean it won’t work – many products where palm oil-based foaming agents have been substituted for other, more sustainable, ingredients aren’t as frothy.
4. Download the free Palm Oil Investigations app at www.palmoilinvestigations.org to your mobile when it becomes available later this year.
5. Submit a letter to food manufactures to encourage them to source only sustainable certified palm oil from the Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) – Zoos Victoria has a ready-made, dedicated ‘Zoopermarket’ website for this: www.zoo.org.au/zoopermarket
6. If you just can’t do without that certain brand of bread or toothpaste that you suspect contains uncertified palm oil, put the question to the manufacturer. Are they using sustainable palm oil? If not, when do they intend to switch sustainable palm oil?
7. If you want to wean palm oil completely out of your life, sign up for the 28 Day Palm Oil Challenge at the www.saynotopalmoil.com website.

For more info:

- Check out the WWF Palm Oil Buyers Scorecard 2013 that assesses 130 palm oil companies.
- Learn what’s being done to conserve orangutan populations with Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme.
- Travel to witness the natural, unharmed rainforest and directly contribute to conservation efforts with Raw Wildlife Encounters.