‘Sustainable’ Palm Oil; The Green Paradox

It destroys rainforests, wipes out critical habitats for endangered species and creates dangerous conditions for its workforce. Meet palm oil. We’ve all heard about it in recent years, we all know that from cosmetics to chocolate bars, it’s in everything, and we’re consuming more and more of the stuff!

The new kid on the block, however, is ‘sustainable palm oil’; a ‘greener’ alternative which protects the increasingly threatened rainforests and is the choice for savvy shoppers. Win-win, surely? But not quite... The RSPO (Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil), the body which certifies palm oil as ‘sustainable’ has been described as ‘a henhouse insurance scheme run by foxes’, in a Greenpeace report dated November 2019. 

It’s clear why huge corporations would be motivated to make palm oil production more palatable to their consumers. They can project themselves in an environmentally-aware light, their products can be marketed as ‘sustainable’ and they can appear to be supporting ethical initiatives. But the true reason? Palm oil is cheap and versatile, and over half of processed goods sold in UK supermarkets contain it. If the big corporations didn’t create a ‘sustainable’ look to increasing palm oil consumption, they either risk losing customers (income) or would have to invest a huge amount of time and money into researching and operationalising alternatives.

As part of their membership of the RSPO, many global brands, themselves major consumers of palm oil, promised to ‘clean up’ the palm oil industry by 2020. As the new decade dawns, we’re yet to see dramatic, measurable shifts in production or distribution, while demand for palm oil continues to escalate. 

So is ‘Certified Sustainable’ palm oil a con? 

Well, it looks like there’s a certain trick to ‘certification’: first, an old-growth tropical forest is cut (for paper and pulp or the tropical timber trade), then a traditional, non-certified palm oil plantation is started. After a period of time, the traditional plantation is ‘transformed’ into a certified one and wins an RSPO sustainability label. The criteria for certification are a commendable set of Principles and Criteria, but they lack clear, relevant targets which reflect a tangible, positive impact upon the environment and are bereft of any measures of progress. These sustainability labels have allowed for expansion of plantations that destroy carbon-absorbing rainforests. Sneaky, eh? Furthermore, the forests used for ‘sustainable’ palm oil production are currently being destroyed much faster than non-certified land. 

When the palm oil industry founded the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) early in the millennium, it was stated that all members (and the consumer brands they work for) must have their oil ‘certified sustainable’. In stark contrast to this seemingly wholesome idea, RSPO members were right at the centre of Indonesia’s forest fire crisis back in 2015. In recent times, these fires have returned, and roughly three-quarters of the fires linked to palm oil companies were on RSPO members’ land. 


    Roberto Gatti, a leading pioneer in research surrounding palm oil, told The Independent ‘No shortcuts: if you use palm oil, certified or not, you are definitely destroying tropical forests.’ He also accused NGOs, corporations and certification schemes of ‘greenwashing’ as a way of hiding mounting evidence against palm oil production. Not quite the virtuous image we have in mind when we think of ‘sustainable’ products… 

    Check out what you can do to reduce your palm oil consumption and slow down the escalation in demand, below.

    What You Can Do To Reduce Your Palm Oil Usage:

    1. Research alternative, localised and more sustainable oils and use them whenever you can e.g. Cosy Cottage Soap products and the products of a growing number of producers, contain no palm oil whatsoever.

    2. Reduce your intake of fatty and unhealthy snack foods - you’ll be saving the environment and will have more room for delicious, palm oil-free luxuries. More locally-made, palm oil free cheese, anyone?

    3.Refrain from buying imported goods and start buying locally where possible – lots of imported and mass-produced goods contain unsustainable ingredients and their air miles aren’t too friendly, either! 

    At Cosy Cottage Soap, our products are, always have been and always will be palm oil free.





    • Pearl

      I am now looking at everything I buy to check for palm oil. I didn’t know so many things contain it. We are mislead by the large company’s and I read your blog with great interest.

    • Elijah

      Thank you for this blog. That’s all I can say. You most definitely have made this blog into something thats eye opening and important. You clearly know so much about the subject, you’ve covered so many bases. Good stuff from this part of the internet. Again, thank you for this blog.
      Organic essential oil

    • ian fletcher

      What an excellent and well researched blog on palm oil and those who exploit it and the damage they do. There is a similar scandal, though largely unreported, concerning the essential oil known usually now as “agarwood” but throughout history as “Oud.”

      There is no “Agar” tree and the substance agar as in ""agar agar is an unrelated product of red algae. Agarwood is actually produced on Aqualaria and Gyrinops trees when they are infected by spiders etc. The trees produce a defensive resin which accumulates in the infected area of the tree and has a hugely valued oil when the wood is steam distilled. Per ml. the perfume is even more valuable than computer printer inks. The trees grow mainly in South East Asia but now there are only few in the wild. Because uninfected trees of the species have no great value, the dealers and their agents have begun drilling these trees to artificially infect them. The more ignorant simply cut the trees down with no benefit for anyone. Because of these practices their last bastion, in the wild, seems to be the islands of the Eastern Visayan islands of the Philippines along with the southern island of Mindinao. My filipino brother-in-law tells us that these people are advertising on the interenet and offering bounties to anyone prepared to lead them to these trees. I also understand that Indonesia settlers in Western Irian, New Guinea are clearing further areas of rainforest to create planations of aqualaria trees which will be farmed for their artificially produced agarwood.

      In the circumstances, it is very unlikely that the real MCoy will make it to the open market and we mere mortals would not be able to afford it, anyhow. The stuff being sold as 100% agarwood must be treated like the “responsibly grown” palm oil.

      Before I fall off this hobby-horse, might I just mention “Frankinsence”. It is obtained from the defensive resin created by the injured/damaged Boswellia tree, rather like the agarwood is with the aqualaria. Scope for mischief there too, perhaps, if the value was greater.

    • Simone Benn

      This sort of information is good to hear, we are lead to believe all sorts of things by huge manufacturers, sometimes you never know which way to turn. If I know that sustainable is as bad as unsustainable I wont buy it at all, if it can be helped. Although I am sure manufacturers are sneaky enough for us to not always know what is in the product, trust in large companies is starting to fail, its certainly true for me.

    Leave a comment

    Please note, comments must be approved before they are published