The Hidden Costs of Unsustainable Palm Oil

Loading tractor scooping up fresh oil palm fruits for transport

Despite the ongoing controversies about unsustainable palm oil, it continues to be an ever-present ingredient in an estimated 50% of packaged products found in supermarkets. This versatile oil has eked its way into every corner of our lives, from shampoos and soaps to chocolates, bread, animal feed, and biodiesel. 

When you step back and look at what palm oil brings to the proverbial table for manufacturers, it’s not hard to see why they continue to see it as the most attractive choice. 

It has an incredibly high yield, much more than soy, sunflower, or rapeseed oil. 

It’s highly versatile in food products thanks to its balanced saturated vs. unsaturated fats, which keep it stable at high temperatures and semi-solid at room temperature. 

It has a longer shelf life, neutral taste, neutral smell… 

When you look at it from the producers’ perspective, there’s no denying that it’s an attractive option if you don’t consider the innumerable moral and ethical questions that come along with its journey from plantation to product. 

Today, we’ll take a look at some of the issues with palm oil and why its usage goes against Miss Anne’s Maypop Herb Shop’s commitment to walking softly on Unci Maka’s (Grandmother Earth) cover, her Śina (shawl) by using palm-free, organic, and sustainable ingredients. 

The Environmental Impact of Unsustainable Palm Oil Production

Most of the world’s palm oil is produced in the equatorial belt, particularly in countries like Indonesia and Malaysia, where lush, biodiverse tropical forests are converted into vast mono-cropped palm plantations.

This seemingly endless global demand for palm oil has far-reaching consequences for our environment.

Deforestation

Deforestation remains a major consequence of the world’s insatiable appetite for palm oil. From Borneo’s dense jungles to the rainforests of South America, the high yield of oil palm trees drives the conversion of forested lands into palm oil plantations.

This native habitat loss not only threatens the way of life for indigenous communities but also affects many species of critically endangered animals that call these forests home.

ADPartners, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Endangered Species

Deforestation linked to palm oil production has severe consequences for many animal species, eroding natural habitats and threatening their very existence. The following are some of the animal species being most critically affected by this ongoing environmental crisis:

  • Orangutans: Both the Bornean and Sumatran orangutan habitat is disappearing rapidly as palm plantations replace forests. Between 1999 and 2015, thousands of orangutans were lost due to habitat destruction.
Yuliseperi2020, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
  • Elephants: Borneo pygmy elephants, the smallest Asian elephant subspecies, are facing habitat loss, pushing them into closer contact with human settlements and leading to tragic conflicts.
Mike Prince from Bangalore, India, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
  • Big Cats: Tigers and other big cats find their hunting grounds shrinking due to deforestation, threatening their survival. Up to 90% of Sumatran tiger habitat has been destroyed for the sake of palm oil plantations. 
Monka Betley, CC BY-SA 3.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/, via Wikimedia Commons
  • Rhinos: In places like Sumatra, the conversion of forests into palm plantations is endangering the few remaining habitats of critically endangered rhinos.
26Isabella, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Climate Change

When forests are cleared for plantations, the carbon stored in trees is released into the atmosphere, contributing to global warming. Moreover, in many cases, forests are replaced by plantations on peatlands, which, when drained, release massive amounts of CO2. 

Taufankharis, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In Indonesia and Malaysia, palm oil plantations make up approximately 20% of all annual global emissions. In essence, deforestation in the pursuit of palm oil directly contributes to the climate crises we grapple with today.

Soil and Water Pollution

The environmental toll does not stop with the air we breathe. The cultivation practices associated with palm oil often lead to soil erosion and water pollution.

Pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers used in palm cultivation contaminate local water sources, harming aquatic life and affecting the drinking water of local communities.

The Social Impact of Unsustainable Palm Oil Production

While the environmental consequences of palm oil production are well-documented, the social implications are equally alarming and often overlooked.

Exploitation of Labor

The palm oil industry is a major driver in the economy of southeast Asia. To meet global demand, many producers engage in exploitative labor practices.

Workers, including children, are often subject to harsh conditions, low wages, and even forced labor. The neverending quest to expand palm and pulp plantations exacerbates these labor issues, creating a cycle of exploitation.

Photo by CEphoto, Uwe Aranas

Impact on Indigenous and Local Communities

Traditional lands, cultural heritage, and sustainable human activities are often sacrificed at the altar of palm and pulp plantations. In Indonesia and Malaysia, where vast amounts of palm oil are produced, illegal logging and land seizures for plantation development disrupt the lives of indigenous and local communities.

Health Concerns

The environmental degradation caused by unsustainable palm oil production also has direct negative effects on the health of local communities.

NASA’s Earth Observatory, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

For example, the haze from land-clearing fires leads to respiratory problems, while polluted water sources can lead to a range of health issues. In Indonesia, the 2015 fire season led to over 500,000 reported respiratory infections, illustrating the real and immediate health risks associated with irresponsible palm oil practices.

Sustainable Palm Oil Alternatives and Practices

The devastating effects of conventional palm oil production on both the environment and human lives underscore the need for a radical shift toward sustainability. But the good news is that change is possible, and there are viable alternatives and practices that honor our shared commitment to ethical consumption.

Prioritizing Products That Contain Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO)

CSPO represents a global standard for responsible palm oil production. It mandates criteria for environmental stewardship, social responsibility, and economic viability. Certified sustainable palm oil producers must adhere to guidelines that include preserving biodiversity, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and respecting workers’ rights. 

About 19% of global palm oil is CSPO-certified, reflecting a growing commitment to responsible practices.

Choosing Alternative Oils and Ingredients

The growing demand for palm oil alternatives is opening doors for other vegetable oils. These include oils from sunflower, coconut, and rapeseed, which are often cultivated without harming native trees or endangering wildlife. 

Vengolis, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

These oil crops present a promising avenue for manufacturers and consumers, providing vegetable oil options that align with ethical and ecological principles without sacrificing quality.

Supporting Small Farmers

Supporting small-scale farmers and community-led initiatives is a necessary step towards building a more inclusive and sustainable palm oil industry.

USAID Indonesia, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

By engaging with these stakeholders and providing them with the resources and knowledge to cultivate palm oil responsibly, the industry can encourage practices that are both environmentally sound and socially just.

Organizations like Fair Trade USA are working towards this vision by empowering smallholder farmers and ensuring fair labor practices.

Reading Labels and Certifications

Being a conscious consumer begins with understanding what’s behind the labels. When shopping for products containing palm oil, look for certifications like RSPO-certified palm oil. These labels assure that the palm oil was sourced responsibly and produced without harming the environment or exploiting workers.

Spreefarbe2, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Recognizing and prioritizing products with these certifications empowers us to support sustainable practices directly through our purchasing decisions.

Promoting Responsible Brands

Many brands are transparent about their sustainability goals and practices, especially when it comes to palm oil sourcing. Supporting these brands sends a market signal that consumers value ethical practices. You can find lists of responsible brands at Bunny Army, an invaluable resource site for those seeking cruelty-free alternatives. 

Educating Yourself and Others

Stay informed about the issues surrounding palm oil and the efforts being made towards sustainability. Resources like the World Wildlife Fund’s Palm Oil Buyers Scorecard provide insights into different brands’ commitments to sustainable palm oil.

You can also commit to purchasing from small brands committed to sustainability, including Miss Anne’s Maypop Herb Shop! Our new line of palm-free soaps is now available in scented or unscented, and we’re excited to do our part to prevent further destruction of those beautiful, wild lands. 

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