Palm Oil | Shellethics

Table of Contents ▼▲

  1. Palm Oil Awareness
  2. Why Palm Oil is So Popular
  3. Environmental Impact of Palm Oil
  4. Some Common Names for Palm Oil and its Derivatives
  5. Sustainable Palm Oil
  6. Is There a Palm Oil Alternative?
  7. What Can You Do?

There’s been a large amount of attention on palm oil in the last many years. We’re bombarded with the fact that it is practically used in everything we buy and eat. Palm oil is a type of edible vegetable oil that is derived from the palm fruit, grown on the African oil palm tree. Oil palms are originally from Western Africa, but can flourish wherever heat and rainfall are abundant.

Today, palm oil is grown throughout Africa, Asia, North America, and South America, with 85% of all palm oil globally produced and exported from Indonesia and Malaysia; but most of the time not using sustainable measures.

Palm Oil Awareness

The industry is linked to major issues such as deforestation, habitat degradation, climate change, animal cruelty and indigenous rights abuses in the countries where it is produced, as the land and forests must be cleared for the development of the oil palm plantations.

According to the World Wildlife Fund, an area the equivalent size of 300 football fields of rainforest is cleared each hour to make way for palm oil production. This large-scale deforestation is pushing many species to extinction, and findings show that if nothing changes species like the Orangutan could become extinct in the wild within the next 5-10 years, and Sumatran tigers less than 3 years.

Palm Oil

Indonesian forest turned into a palm plantation.

In total, 50 million tons of palm oil is produced annually, supplying over 30% of the world’s vegetable oil production. This single vegetable oil is found in approximately 40-50% of household products in countries such as United States, Canada, Australia and England. Palm oil can be present in a wide variety of products, including: baked goods, confectionery, shampoo, cosmetics, cleaning agents, washing detergents and toothpaste.

It is the most popular vegetable oil on the planet. The demand for palm oil is so high that palm plantations are destroying the habitats of endangered species due to mass deforestation.

Why Palm Oil is So Popular

Palm oil has great cooking properties–it maintains its properties even under high temperatures. Its smooth and creamy texture and absence of smell make it a perfect ingredient in many recipes, including baked goods (such as biscuits) in particular. It has a natural preservative effect which extends the shelf life of food products.

Palm oil is the highest-yielding vegetable oil crop, which makes it very efficient and cost effective. It needs less than half the land required by other crops to produce the same amount of oil. This makes palm oil the least expensive vegetable oil in the world.


Environmental Impact of Palm Oil

A large proportion of palm oil expansion occurs at the expense of biodiversity and ecosystems in the countries it is produced. Currently, a third of all mammal species in Indonesia are considered to be critically endangered as a consequence of this unsustainable development that is rapidly encroaching on their habitat.

One animal of particular importance according to conservationists is the Orangutan, which has become a charismatic icon for deforestation in Borneo and Sumatra. Over 90% of orangutan habitat has been destroyed in the last 20 years, and as such, is considered “a conservation emergency” by the UN. An estimated 1,000-5,000 Orangutans are killed each year for this development. The Orangutan is a keystone species and plays a vital role in maintaining the health of the ecosystem.

Palm Oil - Orangutan

An example of this being the spread of rainforest seeds in Indonesia, many of which can only germinate once passed through the gut of an Orangutan, hence this primate is essential for the existence of the forest. But the Orangutan is not the only species affected by palm oil development; their situation represents the story of thousands of other species facing the same fate in South-East Asia.

Deforestation for palm oil production also contributes significantly to climate change. The removal of the native forests often involves the burning of invaluable timber and remaining forest undergrowth, emitting immense quantities of smoke into the atmosphere and making Indonesia the third highest greenhouse gas emitter in the world.

Some Common Names for Palm Oil and its Derivatives

Cetyl Palmitate, Elaeis Guineensis, Epoxidized Palm Oil (UV cured coatings),  Ethylhexyl Palmitate, Hydrated Palm Glycerides, Octyl Palmitate, Palm Oil, Palm Fruit Oil, Palm Kernel,  Palm Kernel Oil, Palm Stearine, Palmate, Palmitate, Palmitic Acid, Palmityl Alcohol, Palmitoyl Oxostearamide, Palmitoyl Tetrapeptide-3, Palmolein, Saponified Elaeis Guineensis, Sodium Kernelate, Sodium Palm Kernelate, Sodium Palmate.


Sustainable Palm Oil

Certified sustainable palm oil (CSPO) and palm kernel oil (CSPKO) is produced by palm oil plantations which have been independently audited and found to comply with the globally agreed environmental standards devised by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO)

The RSPO are a not-for-profit who unite stakeholders from the palm oil industry to develop and implement global standards for sustainable palm oil. These stringent sustainability criteria relate to social, environmental and economic good practice.

One of the most important RSPO criteria states no primary forests or areas which contain significant concentrations of biodiversity (e.g. endangered species) or fragile ecosystems, or areas which are fundamental to meeting basic or traditional cultural needs of local communities (high conservation value areas), can be cleared.


Many corporations have signed on to work with organisations like the Rainforest Action NetworkWWF, and the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil to change the industry for the better.

Is There a Palm Oil Alternative?

While simply replacing palm oil with another type of vegetable oil would result in essentially the same level of ongoing deforestation and destruction, there is a possibility for a real-deal sustainable alternative to palm oil in sight—researchers at the University of Bath have developed a way to chemically engineer an oily yeast that can mimic palm oil’s most sought after properties.

Using Metschnikowia pulcherrima, a yeast historically used in the South African wine industry, scientists believe they can develop a truly versatile and planet-friendly alternative to palm oil. Unlike palm plants that need to be cultivated in a specific climate and take up tons of land, this yeast can grown by being fed any form of organic feedstock

“Irrespective of what you are putting in at the start, whether it’s rapeseed, straw or waste food, M pulcherrima can use the sugars in it and grow on it,” says Dr Chris Chuck, research fellow at Bath’s Centre for Sustainable Chemical Technologies.

It is estimated that the amount of land needed to grow this yeast could be anywhere from 10 to 100% less thanpalm oil. The team also believes that they can even use leftover waste from the agriculture industry to grow the yeast, meaning it would not even need to compete for farmland.

The development of this alternative still has a ways to go. At current rates, it costs around $400 more per ton to produce yeast than palm oil, so it’s not yet economically viable. However, scientists are confident that they can have this product up and running within the next three or four years

What Can You Do?

  • Quickly educate yourself with this informative video below.
  • Research. Find out via company websites or emailing them directly to confirm whether they use sustainable palm oil or not.
  • Know which and purchase from companies have already committed to sourcing palm oil for their products from sustainable sources. Though, it’d be wise to avoid the companies who still test on animals unnecessarily, like Procter & Gamble, Avon, and Johnson & Johnson.
  • Avoid palm oil or unsustainable palm oil as much as possible in your purchases.
  • Delve deeper and read in more detail about the $44 billion industry.

Sources: Say No To Palm Oil, OGP: 10 Companies, OGP: The Problem, RSPO, OGP Palm Oil Alternative.
Palm Oil | Shellethics
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