The Palm Oil Industry – Destructive or Sustainable? Defining Sustainable Palm Oil

May 4, 2020   /  

Student: Henry Epling
Major: Environmental Studies
Advisors: Matt Mariola, Carlo Moreno

Palm oil comes from the fruits of the African oil palm and is an ingredient in half of all packaged snack foods and many other products such as toothpaste and shampoo. As an industrial crop, it has continued increasing in demand and expanded to take over nearly 40% of all vegetable oil production worldwide. The overview takes a look at palm oil production from seedling to your supermarket shelves. This chapter ends by taking a brief look into the sustainability of the palm oil industry. So, what does sustainable palm oil production even mean? I take a look into the history of the sustainability concept and follow up by building a theoretical framework on the three pillars of sustainability and sustainable development: environmental, economic, and social. I performed analyses on five case studies in order to assess the current and potential future directions of sustainability for each of these three pillars.

Henry will be online to field comments on May 8:
2-4pm EDT (PST 11am-1pm, Africa/Europe: evening)

47 thoughts on “The Palm Oil Industry – Destructive or Sustainable? Defining Sustainable Palm Oil”

  1. In your review, did you find any evidence of one or more palm oil suppliers or distributors actively working to improve sustainability of production? If so, who was engaged a in such efforts and how?

    1. I was wondering the same thing! You said that things look like they may become more sustainable in the future, but are there any organizations that produce sustainable palm oil right now?

      1. My research focused mainly on the palm oil industry as a whole rather than individual companies. However, if you are to consume products with palm oil I can tell you that certified sustainable palm oil(CSPO) or palm oil certified under the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil(RSPO) are the best way to buy. There are companies such as Unilever, Kellogg’s, and General Mills that have made a significant push toward sustainable palm oil in trying to buy CSPO but aren’t 100% there yet. Several larger companies have been found hiding their poor sustainability by gaining certification for being sustainable while going back to their unsustainable practices after certification. Many European countries will track palm oil down to its origin in order to put labels on products stating “100% certified sustainable palm oil” which is very helpful. Iceland has even banned palm oil as an ingredient altogether. I will buy certain products like Chips Ahoy instead of Oreo’s or Breyer’s ice cream and Halo Top instead of Edy’s ice cream in order to avoid the ingredient entirely. However, there are many smaller companies that will ensure their products contain 100% sustainable palm oil by auditing palm oil companies themselves.

    2. Hey Brian. I encourage you to look at my reply to Maya below as well as Emma Cotter a bit further down for further details on this. The Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil(RSPO) has 68 sustainability guidelines and principles in place that they must ensure palm oil plantations and mills are in compliance with before receiving sustainability certification. You can also check the RSPO’s website to look further into these exact suppliers and distributors. I believe there are around 90 in the United States. However, you should be cautious as there are a few occasions where RSPO certified palm oil plantations have been caught violating these 68 guidelines/principles after receiving sustainability certification. Companies with violations to these rules can usually be found on websites such as World Wildlife Fund(WWF), Rainforest Action Network(RAN), Rainforest Alliance, Green Palm, and Conservation International. Hope this answers your question!

  2. Yours was a fascinating presentation. Having spent some time in sub-Sahara Africa, this topic is quite interesting to me. Your discussion of the people and the labor involved in the industry was quite eye opening as these aspects are often not discussed in mainstream discussions of the palm oil industry, which often focus on tons of carbon and not on the gallons of tears.
    Congratulations on your hard work to produce important new knowledge in an important field.

    1. Thank you Dr. Bowers! There really needs to be a bigger focus on social sustainability and equity within the palm oil industry as much of the research currently covers environmental sustainability.

  3. Hi Henry! Your presentation was very interesting–thanks for sharing! I was wondering if you could share some ways that you’ve found helpful for consumers to be more conscious about their palm oil consumption, as well as any companies that you’ve found to promote more sustainable palm oil production. Great job!!

    1. Hi Emma and thank you for commenting! I left a reply above with more details on this. I check ingredients in snack foods such as granola bars, chips, popcorn, cookies, ice cream, and more to look our for palm oil in the ingredients. Over time, I’ve found it much easier while shopping as I just know what does and doesn’t have palm oil. There are companies such as Weight Watchers, Nabisco, Ben & Jerry’s, Lay’s Potato Chips, Cheetos, Cracker Jacks, Quaker Oats, and many more that no longer use unsustainable palm oil or they’ve gotten rid of the ingredient in their products. Snacks such as apple sauce, cheese, and yogurts also rarely contain palm oil.

  4. Thank you for your study on this topic! The palm oil industry is the main contributor to (rain forest) deforestation in Indonesia. Congratulations!

    1. Thank you! 80% of palm oil production occurs in Indonesia and Malaysia. Unfortunately, the palm oil industry is now spreading into Latin American countries as well.

  5. Leaving a comment now because I won’t be able to during your live session. Even though I had a “sneak peek” at this during your oral exam, I wanted to emphasize what a nice job you did packaging this together in an engaging powerpoint with a clear explanation. Nice work, Henry!

  6. Hi Henry,
    First of all, wonderful presentation. So interesting to hear how you first learned about palm oil’s deleterious effects on the environment at such a young age! After graduating from Wooster, I spent three years in Benin as a Peace Corps Volunteer. There is a lot of red palm oil used there, grown mostly by subsistence farmers. It is used one of the main ingredient in many sauces that accompany the main corn/manioc/rice dish, and is even used for traditional religious ceremonies. After listening to your presentation, particularly concerning the exploitation of local workers and children, I see a lot of parallels between the oil palm and cocoa industries.
    Great job, and good luck with your future studies and career!

    1. Thank you Suzanne! I’d love to talk with you and learn more about your experience in the Peace Corps. Red palm oil is much more popular in Eastern countries because it is unprocessed. Whereas, Western countries will consume refined and processed palm oil for it’s “appealing yellow” color as it looks more like other vegetable oils they’re used to consuming. However, red palm oil is usually more sustainable.

  7. I got a sneak peak into your project in FYS. I remember brainstorming with you how an app could be made that allows consumers to scan barcodes to determine food product sustainability.
    I’m really pleased and impressed with your work. Good luck with your future endeavors!

    1. I’ll always remember the “Want to Change The World?” FYS class you taught, and I’m glad you still remember my FYS project. Thank you Dr. Edmiston!

  8. Henry! I had no idea you hadn’t ate palm oil since you were 7! that’s amazing and admirable and so was your I.S.! Great presentation. Do you plan to implement this research/idea in a future career?

    1. In June I will be an Environmental Coordinator for Fort Wayne Metals, and I’ve considered further education such as a Masters in Sustainability. I don’t think I’ll ever stop researching the palm oil industry. Thanks Waverly!

  9. Henry, I’m touched by your opening statement about having avoided consuming palm oil since age 7–that takes diligence in our food system!–and by your recognition that your strong feelings (which I sympathize with) could understandably influence how you approached this topic. You’ve traced lots of important complexities in this project, as a result. Thanks for sharing your work!

    1. It is a lot of work and I’m grateful my parents were willing to put up with it by buying alternative food products for me at such a young age. Now, it is much easier for me to go shopping as I don’t need to look through the list of ingredients as much, and in general I know what is safe to eat. Thank you Katharine!

  10. Henry,
    This was super interesting! I hope you’re able to keep doing work on this topic in the future becuase it seems important!

    1. It’s very important to me and I’ll always have an interest in researching further into the palm oil industry. Thank you Kayla!

  11. Henry,
    Nice in depth investigation of the palm oil industry! In your opinion, which pillar of sustainability was the most challenging to assess? Do you personally have any groundbreaking developments to increase sustainability in this industry? Great work again, you’re number one!

    1. Thank you Chris! Social and economic sustainability were much harder to assess due to the overwhelming research in environmental sustainability in the palm oil industry currently. If I had to choose one, I’d say economic sustainability was the most challenging because I had to put more thought into my sustainability index while grading this pillar and some sources of research on the economics are contradicting. There are so many ways the palm oil industry can be made much more sustainable! The first study in my meta-analysis found 234 million hectares around the world where palm oil can be sustainably produced. A huge part of being environmentally sustainable means that palm oil plantations must not expand onto high carbon stock(HCS) or high conservation value(HCV) areas. HCS is where tons of carbon emissions are released as a result of converting rainforests to palm oil plantations. HCV is where endangered species exist that must be preserved. Currently, 80% of palm oil production occurs in Indonesia and Malaysia but it’s now expanding more into Latin America. This could be beneficial for environmental sustainability as less rainforest conversion may occur for palm oil plantations and expansion may rather occur onto grasslands. Avoiding peatlands (releases extremely high GHG emissions) is also very important. However, Latin American countries have been found with exploitation of the indigenous and are more socially unsustainable in the palm oil industry. They also still cause environmental pollution with slash-and-burn techniques and pollution of waterways (local streams and rivers). Personally, there’s not a lot that one individual can do and it takes many people to make significant changes. However, there are many people like me that choose not to consume palm oil products whatsoever. This is why I state that investors and bankers that contribute financially to funding the palm oil plantations must do their part to put regulations and sanctions in place to make the industry more environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable. Additionally, the RSPO could contribute further to sustainability by auditing their companies to ensure they’re staying sustainable after certification and implementing punishments to those found violating their 68 sustainable guidelines. Again, it is not the oil palm tree or fruits themselves that are unsustainable as they’re actually far more sustainable than other vegetable oils. It’s the organizational cultures, plantation operations, and widespread lack of compliance with regulations that make the palm oil industry unsustainable. Thank you for your compliments; I am number one!

  12. Thank you for educating me regarding palm oil. I try to live very healthy, and palm oil products are currently being esteemed by various health experts. I didn’t realize that like so many other past products on the market, that palm oil is being exploited to the point of ruining land, and peoples themselves. I will definitely be more discriminating in my need and purchase of this product.

    1. Hey Rhonda. Thank you for your wonderful comments. It always makes me so happy knowing the work I’m doing is encouraging others to do the same as I have the last 15 years by avoiding palm oil products. You’re amazing! I check ingredients in snack foods such as granola bars, chips, popcorn, cookies, ice cream, and more to look our for palm oil in the ingredients. Over time, I’ve found it much easier to shop at supermarkets as I understand what does and doesn’t have palm oil. I encourage you to look at a couple of my replies above as to more specifics about companies or products that don’t contain the harmful ingredient. Thanks!

  13. Henry,
    Thank you for educating me, I was not aware of the devastation to the tropical rain forests as a result of the palm oil industry.
    Your decision to avoid palm oil at such an early age is impressive!
    From your research, is there evidence to support an interest within the palm oil industry to aggressively pursue more sustainable production options?
    And is it felt that moving to more sustainable options might have some positive effects on the overall rain forest devastation?

    Great job!

    1. Companies such as Unilever, Kellogg’s, General Mills, and Cargill have made pledges to pursue more sustainable palm oil production and hopefully will have committed to this enough to have 100% certified sustainable palm oil(CSPO) soon. Nestle has also made significant improvements in sustainability after protests from the indigenous and other groups in Indonesia and Malaysia. Some companies have gotten rid of palm oil in their products entirely. Some supermarkets in Europe require that their products containing palm oil must be labeled as to whether or not they have CSPO. Moving to more sustainable options would most definitely have positive effects on rainforest devastation as it’s required that the palm oil plantations cannot expand onto high carbon stock(HCS) or high conservation value(HCV) lands. This would not only halt deforestation in the tropics but it would also prevent high carbon emissions and greenhouse gas(GHG) emissions.

  14. Thank you Henry for highlighting this controversial topic. I remember when I first heard about palm oil industry destroying natural habitats like you did at the zoo, I was shocked and horrified. I ended up doing a lot of research on the internet but the posts on the internet seemed to be divided about the sustainability and about whether it is bad to use palm oil in snacks.

    Thank you for giving me more knowledge on the topic. One of the worst parts about the internet is questioning whether if what you read is reliable. So, it was refreshing to hear someone speak on the topic who is passionate and did research in an ethical way.

    1. There’s a lot of controversy from those that argue in favor of palm oil because it doesn’t contain harmful trans fats. Additionally, there are many misleading companies from Indonesia and Malaysia that will focus solely on the oil palm tree sustainability comparatively to other vegetable oils. However, it’s the unsustainable plantation practices and lack of compliance with regulations that causes palm oil to be very unsustainable currently. Hopefully this changes soon! Thank you for your well thought out comments Kristin!

  15. What a cool topic! Palm oil seems to fall in the trap of claims of sustainability because it’s an alternative, and therefore must be better, right? There’s a lot you can dig into in this topic, such as economics and politics. Good job!

    1. The palm oil industry will take advantage of false claims of sustainability by stating that the oil palm produces 3.5 tons of palm oil per hectare, for example, compared to soybean oil that may only produce half a ton. However, this doesn’t mean the palm oil industry is sustainable but rather just the oil palm tree/fruit itself. There’s certainly a lot you can dig into! If the proper steps are taken the industry could be made sustainable. Thank you for commenting

  16. You did a great job presenting on such a complex topic! I’m so glad that you had the opportunity to work on a topic that is clearly closely personal to you…good luck in all your future endeavors!

  17. Congratulations Henry! Very impressive work. I admire your dedication to understanding the palm oil industry and the many issues associated with palm oil production and use. A question that I’m sure you have encountered is “What is so special or unique about palm oil that makes it so attractive for producers and the food industry?” A related question is “Are there any good alternative oils (cottonseed oil or olive oil, for example) that could be used as a replacement?” I know your future is very bright. Best wishes.

    1. For your first question, palm oil is very attractive for producers and the food industry for two reasons. First, it’s very cheap for a few reasons but one of them being the labor exploitation (forced labor) and child labor present in the palm oil industry. Second, it’s attractive because it has so many uses to it: toothpaste, soap, shampoo, candles, and so many different snack foods – everything from chips to granola bars, cookies to ice cream, bread to popcorn, and so much more. For your second question, I’ve found that it really depends on the application companies intend to use the vegetable oil on. For example, many companies will use canola oil as a replacement but some others will use soybean oil depending on the product or snack food. Olive oil, peanut oil, and sunflower oil have also been used though I believe less commonly. I haven’t looked into cottonseed oil but I’d be interested to research further into that. Thank you for your questions and comments Will Ridley! I’m so glad you found my research and that it’s impressive even to you.

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