You may not be familiar with the scientific name “Elaeis guineensis”, but we’re sure you’ve seen and heard about it: palm oil. But what is palm oil, and how does it impact our environment? Does sustainable palm oil exist? In this blog, you’ll everything you need to know about palm oil so you can make the right decisions for your lifestyle!
What is Palm Oil?
To put it simply, palm oil is an edible vegetable oil that’s made from the fruit of a certain species of palm trees. Crude palm oil comes from the fruit being squeezed, and palm kernel oil is produced by crushing the kernel in the middle of the fruit. Palm oil is in about 50% of the packed products found in the supermarket like lipstick, pizza dough, instant noodles, ice cream, detergent, bread, rubber, and many other things we use every day. This is, in part, because it’s so versatile! At room temperature it’s semi-solid, and it’s resistant to oxidation so it allows products to have a longer shelf life. It’s also stable at high temperatures, odorless, and colorless, making it useful for cooking.
Sounds great right? Well, as you may know, palm oil also greatly contributes to deforestation, which leads to the habitats of endangered species getting destroyed. The WWF suggests that around 300 football fields of forest are cleared every hour to make room for palm oil plantations. Palm oil production also emits greenhouse gasses, contributes to climate change, and often the people working to produce it are exploited and underpaid.
Despite these environmental issues, it would be a large undertaking to just stop putting palm oil into products. Palm oil trees produce more palm oil per square foot of land than any other similar vegetable oil crop. If palm oil was replaced with an alternative oil, 4 to 10 times more land would need to be used to harvest the oil! Another alternative is to have companies stop using any oil, palm oil or not, in their products–which again, is extremely difficult to enforce and is not an immediate solution.
Can Palm Oil be Made Sustainably?
Thankfully… yes! Palm oil can be harvested and produced in a way that is more mindful of our planet, although it still requires land, labor, and production inputs. Companies that do harvest, produce, and supply palm oil sustainably can then receive the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) certification, certifying that their palm oil is doing better for our planet, and the people on it.
The RSPO is a third party non-profit which is made up of stakeholders from “oil palm producers, processors or traders, consumer goods manufacturers, retailers, banks/investors, and environmental and social non-governmental organizations (NGOs), to develop and implement global standards for sustainable palm oil.” Cool, right?
How Does the RSPO Work?
There are two types of certifications that the RSPO gives out in order to make sure that the whole process of producing and supplying palm oil is done sustainably, including reducing their negative impact on indigenous communities and the environment. The first certification is Principles & Criteria, which applies to the palm oil growers, the second is the Supply Chain Certification System, which applies to the rest of the supply chain.
The RSPO has 8 principles and more than 40 criteria that companies must comply with before their product can be certified as sustainable palm oil. These principles and criteria are revised every five years, allowing them to keep up with new environmental knowledge & changes in technology, alongside other global issues. Checkout the 8 principles below!
In order to make sure that companies are producing and supplying their palm oil sustainably and meeting the criteria, the companies are consistently audited and must meet all requirements and standards. Palm oil companies must also conduct social and environmental impact assessments. There are policies put in place that ensure no deforestation, no peat (a fossil fuel) development, and no exploitation (NDPE). These policies apply for the entire production process, requiring farmers to take steps like assessing land for high carbon stock and conservation value, as well as getting permission from local communities before using the land, and policies to ban burning land to clear it.
One important RSPO criteria which supports environmental sustainability states that no forests or areas which contain significant concentrations of biodiversity (including endangered species), fragile ecosystems, or areas which are fundamental to meeting basic or traditional cultural needs of local communities can be cleared. Woohoo!
Is the RSPO Effective?
There were comprehensive studies done comparing the environmental impact of RSPO certified vs non certified palm oil from 2017 to 2019. These studies found that certified palm oil has a 35% lower global warming impact, and a 20% lower nature occupation impact. So, we stand behind the RSPO, and believe that they have been successful at mitigating and reducing the harmful environmental effects of conventional palm oil production. This is great news, especially because palm oil is in so many different products–and avoiding it entirely is a huge lifestyle shift.
At EarthHero, we want to provide a sustainable alternative for everything in your life, and that includes products made from conventional palm oil. While we suggest you be mindful of this issue, and reduce palm oil when and where you can, we get it: palm oil is hard to cut out completely, as it is everywhere! That’s why any EarthHero product that does contain palm oil is made from sustainable palm oil, a more ethical option.
What do you think about this complex issue? Have you managed to go completely palm oil free? Are you just learning about the palm oil issue? Leave us a comment below and share your story!