palm oil

Reducing Our Reliance on Palm Oil

palm oil

Something we’ve spoke a lot about in our house is palm oil.  Palm oil is ubiquitous in all of our homes – from the food we eat to the cleaning products we use, even in so-called eco-saviours like bio-diesel – yet it is almost single-handedly wiping out the Indonesian rainforest and the habitat of the orangutans. Through our shopping habits we are all unconsciously driving this destruction.

Palm oil is derived from the fruit of the oil palm tree, primarily in Indonesia and Malaysia.  The demand for the oil has doubled in the last ten years because it delivers more vegetable oil per-hectare than other oils like soya or sunflower.  It’s demand has also been driven by western health concerns, particularly fat contents in foods – as palm oil is free of trans fats, unlike other oils.

The problem is that palm oil is usually grown on the site of former rainforest.  Palm oil plantations cover 6 million hectares of former forests in Indonesia alone, destroying the home of indigenous species, like elephants, tigers, rhinos, and orangutans, and triggering enormous releases of carbon dioxide from lost forests and drained peat lands.

Indonesia is now the world’s third-largest carbon dioxide emitter, after China and the U.S, and the demand for palm oil is rising, to the extent that by 2015 Greenpeace estimate a further 4 million hectares of forest will be cleared for the production of palm oil for use in the bio-fuel market alone, meaning that other delicate ecosystems such as the forests of central and west Africa are now being cleared for the growth of oil palm trees.


After speaking more and more about this, and finding out more about the extent of the destruction in Indonesia and beyond we’re looking to reduce our reliance on palm oil, and be more conscious and ethical consumers.

It’s going to be a challenge – here is a list of 30 names palm oil is known by on product labels.  Palm oil is also ubiquitous in bread, biscuits,  ice-cream, pizza, frozen chips, crisps, peanut butter (apart from Sunpat), margarine, chocolate and many more of my vices (including my dearly beloved Reece’s Peanut Butter Cups).  It’s also commonly found in detergent (including “eco-friendly” products like Ecover and Method, surprisingly), and personal care products like soap, toothpaste and shampoos, shower-gels and bubble baths: anything that foams up basically.

You can purchase products from manufacturers who say that they use palm oil that is sourced sustainably (members of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil [RSPO] are allowed to label their products as sustainable) however I’m not convinced that palm oil can be sourced sustainably, and indeed others are writing off “sustainably sourced palm oil” as greenwash.  Greenpeace, notably, say that “many RSPO members are taking no steps to avoid the worst practices associated with the industry, such as large-scale forest clearance and taking land from local people without their consent. On top of this, the RSPO actually risks creating the illusion of sustainable palm oil, justifying the expansion of the palm oil industry“.  Greenpeace have also found evidence that RSPO members still rely on palm oil suppliers who destroy rainforests and convert peatlands for their plantations, so for us it’s vital to avoid palm oil entirely.

I already check food labels for their salt, sugar and fat content (I’m a joy to go grocery shopping with!), so I guess it’s just a matter of scanning a little harder for palm oil and it’s associated names.

We do our food shopping next week – so I’ll let you know how we get on – including how long it takes us!

* image used from here


  1. Interesting to hear this. I spend a lot of time thinking about the sustainability of ,my clothes but hadn’t considered this food/ cleaning ingredient much in the past. Will definitely be keeping my eye out for it from now on.

  2. Thanks Ceri, I’m so so pleased to have raised awareness about palm oil for you – it’s really made my day that you’re going to start thinking about this!

  3. Glad to read I am not the only one who scrutinises labels! I also email manufacturers with follow-up queries… Good luck with your efforts to avoid palm oil. It is a real challenge, particularly as there is no compulsory labelling in the UK. (Labelling on household products, fabrics, furniture… is woefully lacking generally.) I think the best way to avoid palm oil in food is to cook from scratch, buying raw fats such as butter/lard/olive oil/sunflower oil… In cleaning products and toiletries I have just cut back to the bare minimum: bicarbonate of soda (as toothpaste, mixed with laundry powder) and cider vinegar (as fabric softener and hair conditioner) are great substitutes for many detergents. Borax and pure olive oil Marseille soap are two other key ingredients in the laundry box. Oh, and I am also growing soapwort so I can make my own soap wash for my delicates and my hair…

  4. It is irresponsible of you to denigrate the efforts made to cultivate sustainable palm oil. Since it is highly unlikely that the use of palm oil (a most useful ingredient with a unique oil structure in many products) will be completely halted for the following are reasons:

    First of all, by eliminating palm oil from the equation, the demand would shift to other vegetable oils. Palm oil has a very high yield as opposed to other vegetable oils and if it were banned, many more areas would need to be converted into agricultural land – not less – to meet the ever increasing global demand for fats and oils. Secondly, in producing countries, millions of farmers and their families work in the palm oil sector. Palm oil plays an important role in the reduction of poverty in these areas. In Indonesia and Malaysia, a total of 4.5 million people earn their living from palm oil production. Are you willing for these people to be deprived of the means of supporting their families?
    Encouraging the increase in sustainable palm plantations is NOT greenwashing. I suggest you read this thoughtful report from the Centre for International Forestry Research to balance out Greenpeace’s hyperbole:
    Oh, and in reply to Meg: in the UK, both food, and particularly cosmetics are indeed subject to compulsory labelling. Borax (sodium tetraborate) is highly irritant and is banned from use in children’s toiletry products in Europe (and is likely to face a full ban in the future) ; vinegar does not condition hair, although it does balance the alkalinity of some shampoos. Soapwrort can indeed work for washing delicates, and probably not too bad for hair, but can I suggest you look out small local producers of handmade cold process soap (both bar and liquid) instead of buying Marseilles soap, which is mostly mass-produced these days?

  5. Hi Dina,

    Thanks for commenting and I appreciate the points you have made. I personally don’t think our increased rate of consumption of palm oil is any way sustainable, especially if it continues to increase the rate in which is has done, and I am not sure how palm oil production can be sustainable – I am unconvinced by that article. The idea of not clearing areas by rivers, on slopes (which wouldn’t be planted on anyway) and leaving tiny wildlife corridors sounds to me, personally, as an excuse to be able to clear more indigenous and diverse habitats on the grounds that it is sustainable when the reality is it is far from it.

    I also don’t think palm oil is beneficial to the local communities. Rainforest Rescue ( say that:

    “Plantations are often put in place without consulting the people who live in the forest or depend on the land for their livelihoods. In Indonesia alone, where 45 million people live in forests, the palm oil industry is responsible for around 5,000 land and human rights conflicts. If the affected people resist, they are often forcibly displaced, like the inhabitants of the village of Sungai Beruang in Indonesia. Even the people in the adjacent settlements of the plantations frequently lose their livelihoods. Not only do they rely on the forest as a natural water reservoir and source of food, but also as protection against landslides and floods. The chemicals used on palm oil plantations pollute the soil and water, thus making other forms of agriculture impossible”.

    You should take a look at this:

    I think the compulsory labelling due in place in the UK in December 2014 will help people make more informed changes and choose existing products that do not use palm oil.


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