An investigation into palm oil

* 8 min read
We have all been made aware of environmental issues associated with the use of palm oil. Let’s explore the reasons behind the negativity and investigate what is being done to try and rectify the problem.

Palm oil is a vegetable oil, just like sunflower and olive oil. It’s made from the fruit of palm trees (Elaeis Guineensis). There are two types of oil that can be produced, crude palm oil which comes from squeezing the fleshy fruit and palm kernel oil, which is from crushing the kernel or the stone that’s found in the middle of the fruit.

Palm oil trees are native to Africa and were brought to South East Asia over 100 years ago. It was first used as an ornamental tree crop. Now it is commonly grown and harvested in Indonesia and Malaysia which boasts over 85% of the global supply. There are currently over 40 countries that produce palm oil.

Palm oil CAN be produced sustainably, but so much of it isn’t. The oil’s versatility is part of its problem and is commonly used by global companies producing items such as shampoo, bread, toothpaste, detergent, peanut butter, snacks, and chocolates. It’s estimated that 50% of all packaged products we purchase contain palm oil. It can also be found in biofuels that are used in people’s cars (not in the UK) and animal feed. In African and Asian counties, palm oil is frequently used as a cooking oil, just as we would use sunflower and olive oil. Another reason for its popularity is that is extremely versatile and efficient compared to other oil crops. It is highly productive for farmers who can produce very high quantities of oil almost all year round over small areas of land. Palm oil supplies 40% of the world’s vegetable oil but occupies just 6% of the land used to produce vegetable oil. Between 4 – 10 times more land would be required to produce alternative vegetable oils including sunflower or coconut oil. To confuse matters even more, there are over 500 processed forms of palm oil used in products, accounting for 60% of the global palm oil used.

The current palm oil industry is a major disaster for the worlds biodiverse forests, its wildlife, and the world’s climate. Tropical countries have large areas of rainforest which are home to Orangutans, Tigers, Pygmy Elephants and Sumatran Rhinos, and many other species which are not found in the wild anywhere else in the world. The demand for palm oil is one of the key reasons why the palm oil companies continue to devastate forests without concern for the damage it is causing. Companies are destroying forests and replacing them with palm oil plantations which instantly wipes out the natural habitat for animals that cannot find another home. 80% of the Orangutan habitat has been destroyed in the last 20 years and they face serious risk of extinction in our lifetime. More than three quarters of Indonesia’s Tesso Nilo Nation Park, (which is home to many different animals) have been turned into illegal palm oil plantations.

mark flanagan ZoHpiWHR2fI unsplashImage Source: Unsplash - Mark Flanagan

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Nearly 200 critically endangered species are threatened by palm oil production however, demand for palm oil continues to rise and is expected to more than double by 2030 and triple by 2050.
GC1Simon Furness - Sun Strategy

It is not only the forest loss, but also the conversion of carbon rich peat soils that are producing millions of tonnes of greenhouse gases into our atmosphere and contributing to climate change. There are also continued issues with exploitation of workers and child labour which the whole palm oil sector needs to admit and do something to stop.

So, what can be done to tackle this ongoing problem?

There are many areas that are being addressed already, but even more that CAN be done. Palm oil CAN be produced more sustainably, together it must be tackled by companies, governments and by us, the consumers. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was formed in 2004 as a response to the concerns about the impacts palm oil is having on the environment and on society. It includes a production standard that sets best practice for production and sourcing of the oil, which has buy-in of most of the global industry.

rspoImage Source: Bioenergy International

The WWF® encourages companies to set robust policies to stop deforestation, conversion of other natural ecosystems such as peatlands and human rights abuses throughout the supply chain. Companies should buy and use RSPO certified palm oil across their operations and need to be transparent in their use and sourcing of palm oil to ensure they know the provenance, who and where they are buying from. It’s just as important that the palm oil industry continues to invest in and offer support for small-holder programmes and sustainable landscape initiatives.

Here in the UK, the government set a commitment for 100% of palm oil used in the UK from sustainable sources that do no harm nature or people. It is consoling that 71% of the total palm oil imports to the UK, 2022 were from sustainable sources, but we still have a long way to go. For example, one of the products that causes the continued gap is animal feed for chickens, cows, and pigs which must be addressed to achieve our 100% target.

Rebecca Cusworth, Regulatory Partner, Sun Strategy advises, with the implementation of the Food Information Regulations 2014 (FIR), food products containing palm oil must be labelled as such. However, as this legislation does not include non-food items, it can be difficult to determine which of these products contain palm oil when a clear indication isn't given. What’s more there are over 200 palm oil derivatives (ingredients formed by the further processing of palm oil). Luckily however, the Orangutan Alliance lists them all.

As consumers we can play our part by being mindful which products we buy to ensure the palm oil used is from a sustainable source; boycotts will not work as it will push the demand onto other vegetable oils which in turn can lead to even further environmental and social harm. There are websites that can advise on brands and products that use sustainably sourced or palm oil free products. When shopping we can look for the RSPO logo printed on our groceries, this indicates the use of RSPO-certified Sustainable Palm Oil in the product.

hjhjhImage Source: RSPO

We understand that brands need to act responsibly with every aspect of their products. Not only the raw ingredients, but the packaging and supply chain. At Sun Strategy we can work with you to ensure you are aligned with today’s sustainability regulations and to understand how future legislations will affect you. This insight can ensure you make the necessary changes and reduce your negative environmental impact, creating sustainable strategies fit for the future.

Pioneering the right choices for you, your customers and our planet.


About the author

imageedit 1 6168940299Simon Furness – Structural Design

Simon has 30 years' experience in the packaging industry. As an experienced structural packaging designer, he has worked with major brands and retailers including Marks and Spencer, Target, Pier 1, Tesco, Remington and Russell Hobbs. Simon has extensive manufacturing experience across primary, secondary, tertiary and food packaging. He designs holistically with primary considerations being fit for purpose packaging, durability, optimisation and sustainability. He has also worked closely with Asia, India and North American markets. Over the last 10 years, Simon has worked with clients to understand and recommend changes to their supply chain to improve and reduce damages and save cost.

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