What’s the problem with palm oil?

What’s the problem with palm oil?

Palm oil may be one of the most problematic ingredients on the supermarket shelf – and one of the most controversial and confusing topics in the ethical and sustainable space.

Why is this common ingredient causing such big problems for orangutans, wildlife and forest communities? 

And what’s the most viable solution?

We’ve partnered with some of the leading voices on Palm Oil from the #EthicalHour community, and those businesses and organisations working to protect orangutans – the forest animals caught up in this contentious issue and forced to fight for their survival – to explore the problems with palm oil and what we as consumers can do.


The problem begins with mass consumption

Palm oil is a vegetable from the fruit of the oil palm trees, which can be found in most products on supermarket shelves – from food to beauty and even household cleaning. 

In fact, according to WWF, it’s found in close to 50% of the packaged products we buy.

There are many different properties and functions which make palm oil such a popular ingredient. It keeps spreads spreadable, gives products a longer shelf life, and doesn’t alter the look or smell of food.

Unfortunately it is this versatility which has driven high demand, and that’s where the problems start to occur.

Since 1980, palm oil production has increased tenfold – with estimates that production will increase 50% by 2050.

The oil palm only grows within 10 degrees north or south of the equator, and Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand are among the top palm oil producing nations. 

These regions typically house vast areas of rainforest, rich in biodiversity and important ecosystems.

Sadly the demand for palm oil is leading to extensive deforestation, as more space is cleared for production. The equivalent of 300 football fields of rainforest are currently destroyed every hour!

These forests are home to indigenous people, endangered animals and trees which store greenhouse gases – which get released when the trees are felled. And as with any industry where increased demand leads to greater production and profit chasing, unsustainable palm oil production is also leading to child labour and worker rights abuses.


One victim of the palm oil industry is the Orangutan

Orangutans have lived for hundreds of thousands of years in the forests of Sumatra and Borneo, but now their very existence is threatened as forests are felled, in part, for palm oil production.


They share 97% of their DNA with humans, and their name even means “person of the forest” – but sadly these beautiful apes are now critically endangered.

The plight of the orangutan inspired Dom Desmond to start his own ethical business, in order to protect Borneo orangutans and other animals at risk.

When Dom first visited Borneo he was inspired by his encounters with orangutans and the time he spent in the rainforest. But upon returning 10 years later, he was shocked to see the devastation caused by palm oil production.

“Seeing orangutans in the wild and the destruction of their rainforest for this crop opened my eyes to the travesty that is happening. Once your eyes are open to something like this, you have to roll up your socks and help.” – Dom Desmond, Founder of Critically Endangered Socks

Dom designed his range of ethically made socks to ‘save species’ – partnering with Friends of the National Parks Foundation to safeguard 80 square metres rainforest in Borneo for every pair of Orangutan socks sold.

(Dom joined me on the podcast last Summer to share his vision, journey and experience of protecting the rainforest and some of the world’s most vulnerable animals).

There are only around 104,000 Borneo Orangutan left due to palm oil and logging, and in Sumatra, things are looking even worse, as only around 14,600 Sumatran Orangutan remain in the wild. 

Of the newly identified species, the Tapanuli Orangutan, there are only 800 left, making it the rarest of all great apes on the planet.

Sadly, many find themselves the victims of human-wildlife conflict, as they’re treated like pests on palm oil plantations.

WARNING: this video is upsetting, but in it you can see an orangutan try to defend its habitat from bulldozers. It’s hard to watch, but it shows how desperate this plight really is.


Save the forest, save the orangutan 

Protecting the rainforest is key to securing the future of the orangutan, and other endangered forest inhabitants.

Sumatran Orangutan Society are working to secure the future of the Sumatran orangutans, by securing the future of their forests.

The key is to find a balance between economic and social needs and a flourishing, healthy environment for all species, including humans. That’s why Sumatran Orangutan Society work to tackle the causes of deforestation, as well as the symptoms.

They support frontline conservation programmes and work on projects including rainforest restoration and developing community-led conservation initiatives which support the protection of the rainforests, empowering local people to become guardians of this precious ecosystem. 

“We are working hard, alongside our NGO and private sector colleagues, to break the link between development and deforestation, thereby ensuring that forests are kept safe from the bulldozers and chainsaws.” – Lucy Radford, Sumatran Orangutan Society 

Securing safe areas of forest where the orangutan can thrive is an effort that involves policy makers, industry, communities and NGOs.

Effective partnerships will be key in achieving a successful balance between industrial development and thriving forest ecosystems.

Thankfully, there are organisations like Sumatran Orangutan Society and Orangutan Land Trust making this their priority.

Orangutan Land Trust envisions a better world in which deforestation-free, sustainable palm oil because the norm, allowing for orangutans and wildlife to thrive within resilient landscapes. 

They focus on supporting the preservation, restoration and protection of forests in the areas where orangutans naturally exist or have existed in the past, with the aim of ensuring that there are safe forest areas set aside for orangutans and other species which accompany them within their habitat to form a healthy ecosystem.

“Having worked in orangutan conservation for over 25 years, I have rescued orangutans from oil palm plantations, nursed them back to health or sadly sometimes watched them die. 

I have seen the forests I love in Kalimantan bulldozed and burned for oil palm. I’ve met local people whose lives have been made unlivable due to land-grabbing and destruction of their forest larder. 

So it is with the greatest of conviction and a lot of investigation behind me that I stand by my position that if we are to save the orangutans and their forest habitat, and address the catastrophic impacts associated with conventional palm oil production, we MUST do all we can to make sustainable palm oil the norm.” – Michelle Desilets, Founder, Orangutan Land Trust


Finding a solution to unsustainable palm oil is key

To feed global demand for palm oil, we are currently destroying the rainforest and depleting natural resources at an unsustainable rate.

However, palm oil production and deforestation don’t necessarily have to go hand in hand. 

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) is a not-for-profit uniting stakeholders from the 7 sectors of the palm oil industry: palm producers, processors or traders, consumer goods manufacturers, retailers, banks/investors and environmental and social NGOs.

Their aim is to develop and implement global standards for sustainable palm oil and create a sector that doesn’t have a negative impact on the environment, wildlife or people. RSPO prohibits deforestation and requires members to protect endangered species like the orangutan.

Finding solutions and suitable compromises isn’t easy, but it’s essential if we’re going to protect the rainforest and build a better palm oil industry.


Why don’t we just boycott palm oil or ban it altogether?

The palm oil industry has become a crucial source of income and employment for countries that produce it, with over 4.5 million people in Indonesia alone relying on the palm oil industry as their primary source of income.

Those of us who are concerned about the issue and fortunate enough to be born in a developed country, need to acknowledge the right of other countries to develop too. 

An outright ban on palm oil would hinder economic development – and if more producers move towards sustainable certification this will help tackle labour abuses and ensure fair conditions and wages for employees in the palm oil supply chain.

It’s also important to recognise that oil palm itself isn’t bad. In fact, oil palms are the most productive oil crop in the world!

If the international market for palm oil disappears, production will switch to an alternative crop. At a lower yield, this would require even more land, which would increase deforestation and make the problem worse.



Boycotting palm oil could also drive the prices down, making it more attractive for biofuels and livestock feed. 

This could actually increase demand and experts have warned that a blanket boycott of palm oil will only shift the problem elsewhere, or worse, exacerbate it.

“All agriculture has an impact, and palm oil is here to stay. What we need to do is ensure that it is cultivated in the least damaging way possible. Palm oil trees do not need to be grown at the expense of forests. 

Instead, we need to demand an end to deforestation to ensure safe habitat for orangutans and all the other species that also rely on the rainforest.” – Lucy Radford, Orangutan SOS



What can consumers do?

Many of the brands and products we consume every single day contain palm oil, or its derivatives.

Until the brands stop purchasing from producers linked to deforestation, palm oil will continue to be a major threat to the rainforest and its inhabitants.

Whether or not to boycott palm oil altogether is a decision for each individual consumer, and each company with palm oil in their supply chains. As with all ethical and sustainable issues, the choices are personal.

There are many smaller ethical brands who only use responsibly sourced palm oil, or who boycott it completely – which shows it can be done.

Emma Heathcote-James started her business, The Little Soap Company, from her kitchen table and says “it has always, always been about green values and the right way to do things, not the easy way.”

The Little Soap Company are a shining example of an independent brand that have gone the extra mile to live their values when it comes to ethics, sustainability and palm oil.

Since the start, their oils have always been carefully sourced from sustainable organic plantations, and in the case of palm oil from accredited organic, RSPO-certified sustainable plantations. 

Over the last decade, the business has expanded across the country and brought sustainable palm oil to the supermarket shelves, making it more accessible to the everyday consumer.

“We don’t believe boycotting palm is the answer, instead, we want to play our part in transforming the industry. We are a small company but we want to add our voice to the growing call for palm oil companies to produce responsible palm oil, and stop clearing forests.” – Emma Heathcote-James, Founder of The Little Soap Company.


No matter what you decide, one thing is clear.

We can’t keep destroying the rainforest at the current rate, for palm oil or any other crop.

If you want to take a stand against deforestation and protect Orangutans, the best thing you can do is vote with your wallet and raise your voice for change.

Palm oil can be hidden in products under a wide variety of names – so learning how to read ingredient lists on labels is the first step towards taking a stand.

If you see any of the following, then the product contains palm oil:




Choose products with certified sustainable palm oil if you don’t want to boycott completely, and whichever route you choose, make your voice heard by communicating with brands and retailers to show them that palm oil linked to deforestation is unacceptable.



This post has been written as part of our sponsorship programme, for International Orangutan Day 2019.

We regularly invite ethical and sustainable brands and organisations who align to our values to join us on the blog, Instagram and the Monday night #EthicalHour Twitter chat as part of our sponsorship programme. If you’d like to know more and get involved, please email sponsorship@ethicalhour.co.uk.

To find out more about our sponsors and partners in this campaign, please visit their websites:

Critically Endangered Socks: https://www.criticallyendangeredsocks.com/
RSPO: https://rspo.org/
Sumatran Orangutan Society: https://www.orangutans-sos.org
The Little Soap Company: https://www.littlesoapcompany.co.uk/


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1 Comment
  • simon lamb
    Posted at 19:37h, 27 October Reply

    The problem with palm oil is that for various reasons sustainably grown palm oil is almost always more expensive than palm grown on newly agriculturalised forest land. Essentially, like other such problems all over the world, the chief problem lies in bad market economics. The cheaper option should always be the environmentally better option. Good economics would incorporate the “external costs” of natural capital depletion (loss of primal forest) through levies, and ring fence the proceeds to pass to sustainable palm oil plantations. It’s all explained in my new book – Junglenomics – Nature’s solutions to the world environment crisis: a new paradigm for the 21st century & beyond

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