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Lets talk: palm oil

The end of 2018 saw the palm oil debate brought to the fore, with a banned Christmas advert depicting destructive deforestation in favour of the palm oil plantation, going viral internationally. But, is a palm oil boycott the answer? Or, is palm oil actually one of our most sustainable oils?
Published —
03.27.19
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Meg says…

At the end of last year our social feeds blew up with an emotional and controversial video from Iceland. The video, originally made by Greenpeace, shows an animated orangutan alerting a young girl that there’s ‘a human in my jungle’ and shows footage of the deforestation caused by palm oil farming. 

Palm oil is a type of vegetable oil made from palm trees grown around the world where typically areas of the rainforest have been destroyed to make space for large palm oil plantations. The plantations can lead to animals like orangutans losing their homes as it destroys natural habitats and disrupts ecosystems in the process. Greenpeace reports that an area the size of a football pitch is lost every 25 seconds due to deforestation with global production of palm oil doubling between 2000 and 2012.

With over four million views, the advert had the nation running to their cupboards to expose the products causing this destruction… But, it’s near impossible to avoid palm oil, it’s the world’s most widely consumed vegetable oil, said to be found in 50% of supermarket products from cakes to cosmetics.

So, is an outright boycott the answer?

Whilst the advert has our outrage directed solely at palm oil, it fails to highlight that palm oil CAN be produced sustainably, and it is by no means the only cause of deforestation. The conversion of land for pasture to raise livestock is reportedly responsible for 70% of deforestation in the Amazon – something conveniently excluded from Iceland’s Christmas ad. So how can we vow to swap our shampoo and peanut butter when livestock is just as huge of a cause of deforestation?

It makes sense to want to boycott – especially when a huge supermarket chain is showing videos of cute orangutans dying in order for you to wash your hair and have your morning tea and toast. 

The real problem isn’t palm oil itself, but the demand for it. A boycott could push producers to replace palm oil, and this switch would most likely require even more land because palm oil is one of the most efficient and sustainable types of oil. 

Something Iceland did not show is that one hectare produces about 3.6 tonnes of palm oil in comparison to one hectare of sunflowers which only produces 0.7 tonnes. On top of this, other types of oil are also a lot more polluting as their cultivation requires chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or causes the production of toxic waste as a by-product (this is the case with olive oil!) Now palm oil is sounding really quite appealing.

But all hope is not lost. The answer isn’t boycotting palm oil. Here’s three things you can do:

1. Consume less. Without a reduction in consumer demand for products, deforestation will continue to be validated by excessive demand. The only way to end it is to reduce our own ecological footprints by buying less, and paying attention to how and where things are made.

2. Ask supermarkets to implement stricter rules and regulations surrounding sustainable palm oil production; it’s essential we keep advocating for companies to farm palm oil sustainably. The power is in our hands to reduce deforestation and human rights violations, because it’s our demand as consumers driving the palm oil.

3. Support companies who only use palm oil certified under the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) whose regulations ensure that areas of high conservation value have been preserved, and local communities have been supported as well as making sure plantation managers are implementing best practices.  

Meg Prosser works at Know The Origin, a Fairtrade and organic fashion brand, working to set a new standard of transparency in the fashion industry.

Hillary says…

Palm oil has been ‘back-doored’ into the global supply chain over the last 20 years as the world’s vegetable oil of choice because it is cheap, easy to use in the manufacturing process, and is very high yielding. It can now be found in 50% of supermarket products, from biscuits and ice cream to shampoo and lipstick. Global demand is set to double by 2050.

The problem is that palm oil is grown almost exclusively in tropical rainforest areas, 85% of it in Malaysia and Indonesia. Tropical rainforests are the ‘crown jewels’ of our planet – despite covering only 2% of the earth’s surface, they contain an estimated 50% of all our biodiversity.

To make way for these vast palm tree plantations rainforest needs to be cleared – chopped down or simply burnt, incinerating everything along with it. This also releases enormous amounts of stored carbon into the atmosphere (which is the reason why Indonesia regularly features as one of the world’s worst carbon emitters). Animals such as the Orangutan, our closest cousins in the animal kingdom, are now critically endangered and could soon become extinct in the wild.

We took the decision to remove palm oil from our products in order to raise public awareness of the environmental damage that is being caused by the destruction of the planet’s precious tropical rainforests. We also wished to give consumers who share our concern the choice of not buying food that contains palm oil. However, we have always emphasised that we are opposed to deforestation, not to palm oil itself, and we have never called for a wider boycott or ban.

We had previously insisted on the use of certified, segregated palm oil in our own label foods, but became increasingly concerned that this was not stopping illegal deforestation. We began removing it from our foods in 2016, and after our MD Richard Walker visited Indonesian Borneo to see the situation at first hand in 2017, we decided to take more radical action. In April we announced we would stop manufacturing products containing palm oil as an ingredient under the Iceland own label by the end of 2018.

This was a bold decision designed to draw public attention to tropical deforestation and the threat to wildlife habitats and local people caused by palm oil plantations, at a critical time when the Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was consulting on its future principles, and Greenpeace was campaigning for major brands to keep their 2020 commitments to zero deforestation.

We have reformulated over 130 regular products and launched over 300 new lines, including summer and Christmas seasonal products, that exclude palm oil as an ingredient: around 450 products in total. No Iceland own label products containing palm oil as an ingredient have been manufactured since the end of last year. 

Instead of palm oil we have used sunflower oil, rapeseed oil, and small amounts of butter and lard in products where they would be used traditionally (like pie crust).

This has been a difficult and expensive process as it is not simply a case of substituting ingredients but often involved completely changing production methods and installing new equipment. No costs have been passed on to the consumer.  

Our campaign launch attracted national and international attention, but gained significant support in November 2018, when we hoped to use a Greenpeace film, Rang Tan, as our Christmas TV advertisement. The outcome of the advert not being approved for TV broadcast, and ultimately going viral on social media, undoubtedly served to raise awareness of the issues surrounding palm oil. The advert was viewed over 70 million times and a petition to overturn the ban, started by a member of the public, attracted over a million signatures. Feedback from the media and the public was overwhelming.

Hillary Berg is head of sustainability and CSR at Iceland.