In the western world, we’re addicted to palm oil.  It’s everywhere – in cleaning products, cosmetics and in many snack foods: from biscuits and bread; to chocolate and spreads.  It’s missed off ingredient lists in cosmetics and hidden under pseudonyms in food, but its use is ubiquitous.

Why do we use it?  Because it’s useful, cheap, high-yielding, and versatile.  The problem: palm oil is the biggest contributor to rainforest destruction.  Its production destroys unique habitats and contributes to climate change.

Tim Hunt, from Ethical Consumer magazine, explores the complex issues with palm oil and how consumers can bring about change where governments and campaigners have failed.

The problem with palm oil

Our addiction to palm oil lies within the plant itself.  With its oily flesh and nut, the palm oil fruit produces a vegetable fat that is solid at room temperature.  This saturated fat is the perfect alternative to more expensive and labour-intensive animal fats and per hectare: it generates higher yields than many other vegetable oils.  Simply put, it is cheap, plentiful and it does a job perfectly.

But like all apparent panaceas, it has a dark side.

At Ethical Consumer we’ve been tracking the palm oil issue for over 20 years and we’ve just released our latest report.

Despite huge campaigns from Greenpeace and WWF, the start of certification schemes like Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) and the involvement of multiple governments and the World Bank, our report highlights that deforestation due to palm oil production is actually getting worse, not better.

In fact, a football pitch sized patch of virgin rainforest is cleared every 25 seconds to make way for palm oil plantations and production is increasing to meet the demands of a growing world population.

Over recent years ‘sustainable palm oil’ and RSPO-certified labels have popped up all over food packaging so you might think that the problem has been solved.  Not so.  Most major snack brands – even with these labels – still have palm oil from deforestation areas in their supply chain.  Just last month Nestle was suspended from the RSPO for failing to file progress reports towards sustainable targets.  In March this year, Greenpeace conducted a report into palm oil production and came up against enormous resistance from brands to disclose their palm oil sources, indicating deeper issues.

problem with palm oil

So, what can we do?

In the west, we are major stakeholders in snack food companies.  We drive their profits through our purchasing decisions so we can apply pressure.

At Ethical Consumer, we advise avoiding palm oil altogether, wherever possible, or buying only from those companies who have a firm commitment to ending deforestation in their supply chain.  We’ve released four new product guides looking at palm oil use in more detail and we recommend the following brands.  Click on the titles to see the full guides.

Butters and spreads
We recommend Biona, M&S and Yeo Valley who offer palm oil free spreads.  Suma and Waitrose brands are actively reducing their use and working to use only deforestation-free supplies.

Chocolate
Although chocolate itself is palm oil free, the sweet fillings often aren’t.  We recommend Pacari, Chocolat Madagascar and Divine who are not only palm oil free but Fair Trade too.

Biscuits
Sustainable palm oil use is being taken seriously by biscuit brands.  There are many brands that are taking an active stance to reduce their usage and shake up the supply chain.  We love Island Bakery whose biscuits are organic and palm oil free.  We also recommend Against the Grain, Doves Farm and Traidcraft brands.

Bread
Although only used in small amounts many bread brands do use palm oil.  For supermarket own brands, Waitrose and M&S are showing real commitment to sustainable policies.  For a branded loaf, choose Biona, Warburtons, Weight Watchers or Jackson’s.

Want to do more?

Take a look at the red category companies in our reports, avoid their products and get in touch to tell them what you think.

Join campaign and boycotts led by Greenpeace and Sum of Us to force big brands to think differently.