Palm Oil: The Environmental Villain Everyone’s Ignoring

By reducing your consumption of animal products, downsizing to a Diva Cup, regularly composting, and only purchasing clothing from ethical sources, you may think you have done everything possible to be more environmentally sustainable on an individual level. However, have you examined the sneaky ingredient in your shampoo, ice cream, and lipstick? Chances are, it is palm oil, which is the most widely consumed vegetable oil throughout the world, according to Business Insider. Palm oil has dozens of alternative names, such as glyceryl, that companies use in order to conceal its bad reputation. In fact, only around 10% of items with palm oil contain the word “palm,” according to the Guardian. Due to palm oil’s vague nature and its inclusion in numerous everyday products, the reduction of palm oil consumption depends on a more intense level of consumer consciousness compared to most other environmentally sustainable lifestyle changes.

Pile of logs Sharad Bhat

Starting with the basics, palm oil originates from the fruit of African oil palm trees. 85% of this oil is sourced from Malaysia and Indonesia, according to the Guardian. While palm oil production has bolstered the economies of some rural areas, it is vastly detrimental and unsustainable. According to the Center for International Forestry Research, 10% of agricultural land is designated for the cultivation of palm oil. It is most commonly harvested through the destructive slash-and-burn technique which occurs when a forested area is cut down and then burned to create a barren plot of land in which to cultivate a plantation. The slash-and-burn method releases greenhouse gases by destroying the natural carbon sink that a dense forest forms. The escalation of palm oil production has provoked greedy companies to infringe on the land of indigenous groups, forcing them to abandon their native region. The deforestation practices that companies use decimate integral biodiversity by killing many organisms and forcing others out of their natural habitat, such as the Sumatran tigers, elephants, rhinos, and orangutans which are all facing extinction. 

Orangutan Mother & Baby E-smile

These unethical practices allow for cheap production costs which have encouraged output of palm oil to quadruple between 1995 and 2015, and are what will incite production to quadruple again in thirty years, as estimated by the Guardian. Palm oil is an extremely efficient source of vegetable oil, and so the best option to increase sustainability is to purchase products containing sustainabily sourced palm oil. Since the ethical sourcing of palm oil is a fairly new endeavor, less than 7% of it is produced sustainably, according to Gaiam. These sustainable companies use the high carbon stock approach which targets and protects valuable areas of forest, minimizes harsh deforestation, and prioritizes the safety of biodiversity. Unfortunately, the obscure supply chains and high consumption rates of palm oil throughout the world make it difficult for individuals to have a large impact on its mitigation. However, individuals who have the resources should aim to avoid palm oil when possible, be encouraged to purchase products that contain sustainably sourced palm oil, and remain conscientious about their consumption habits. 

All images are courtesy of the HerCampus Media Library