Can palm oil be ethical?

Deforestation for oil palm
Credit: Rhett A. Butler /
Deforestation for oil palm
  • Deforestation for oil palm
  • Pair of orphaned orangutans.
Can palm oil be ethical?

We’ve all heard it at least once: “You mustn’t eat palm oil–based products: they’re destroying tropical rainforests and killing orangutans!” It’s true, the big palm oil plantations are wreaking havoc in countries like Indonesia and Malaysia, with their copious biodiversity. But it’s possible to easily reduce our consumption; here are a few tools.

Impact of palm oil operations

To exploit palm oil crops, the big producers cut down the surviving rainforest. According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the equivalent of 300 football fields of tropical rainforest are destroyed every hour. The most important impact is the loss of biodiversity in these areas, depleted by infinite rows of monoculture. Thousands of plant and animal species inhabit these forests.

The orangutan has become the flagship species for conservation, since according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), it is critically endangered. Deforestation by palm oil producers leads to the death of between 1,000 and 5,000 orangutans each year. Some of them are burned alive in the course of forest fires set by producers (direct cause). Others lose their habitat or, driven by hunger, move close to areas inhabited by man and fall victim to poachers (indirect cause).

But of course, it’s not just about the orangutan. It’s a complete ecosystem we’re in the process of losing on a planetary scale, with its trees that allow the planet to breathe, its insects, its tigers, its rhinoceroses, and all the interrelations that link them together.

What steps do we take?

We often associate palm oil with food products like cooking oils, margarine and other spreads. But this oil, which is of high quality, is extreme versatile, which means we find it everywhere in consumer products: cosmetics (creams, lipstick), detergents, soaps, toothpaste, and so on. It’s even used as a biofuel. In other words, simply avoiding it is extremely difficult… Given that context, how do we make the right choices?

Palm oil has over 200 synonyms on consumer product labels. So it’s really tough to choose properly in stores without having some tools in hand.

Every year, a number of major organizations (including the WWF) ethically rank companies using palm oil. They offer a few tools to help us choose a palm oil that is sustainably and ethically produced — as much for the biosphere as for the communities living near the plantations. Look for RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) or Green Palm certification on your product. Also, the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo has developed a mobile application for you. It lists over 5,000 products and offers different options for when you search by product or ingredient.

Thanks to the certifications, informed consumers can now influence companies, and elect to consume products that use a sustainable palm oil.


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