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"Sustainable" Palm Oil

Updated: Sep 4, 2019

Surely, you have seen “Sustainable Palm Oil” on the label of a product in some natural grocery store or cute boutique selling organic paraben soaps and shampoos. This term was created by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) who created a list of guidelines for producers to follow that aim to benefit the environment in addition to local farming communities.


Although, the RSPO have good intentions, “sustainable” palm oil isn’t sustainable by its definition. According to Merriam-Webster sustainable is defined as "a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged.” Instead of preserving luscious rainforest, sustainable palm oil plantations are actually destroying more forest than the non-certified plantations. I know shocking right!


A study, Sustainable Palm Oil Doesn't Make the Grade, by Purdue University found that between 2001 and 2016 certified “sustainable” palm oil plantations were 4.1% less forested than the non-certified plantations. The lead researcher/author of the report, Roberto Cazzolla Gatti, explained that when it comes to deforestation, there aren’t any notable differences between a certified and non-certified palm oil plantation. Both types of farming need (or needed in the recent past) the entire removal of nutrient filled tropical forest.



Above, recently deforested Indonesian land impacted by slash and burn methods in Western New Guinea.


However, Courtney Morgans, a researcher from the University of Queensland discovered that poverty increased at a much slower rate in communities bordering certified “sustainable” plantations compared to communities bordering non-sustainable plantations.


Despite the improvement in local poverty metrics, orangutan populations decreased at parallel rates between the two and highlight the environmental mask of “sustainable” palm oil. Now, when it comes to the reports and data comparing “sustainable” vs non-sustainable plantations on fires from “slash and burn” (a deforestation technique common in the palm oil industry) the numbers are all over the map. Regardless, of the attempt sustainable palm oil does not address harmful environmental impacts. Therefore, I would not consider purchasing sustainable palm oil products as holistic solutions and I recommend refraining from “sustainable” palm oil whenever possible. While I appreciate that companies are changing their products to make them more environmentally friendly, “sustainable” palm oil labeling is more of a mask to the issue rather than a true solution.


The answer is simple for both consumers and the companies that produce these goods...become palm oil free.





Wallheimer, Brian. “Purdue Study: Sustainable Palm Oil Doesn't Make the Grade.” Purdue University News, 3 Dec. 2018, www.purdue.edu/newsroom/releases/2018/Q4/purdue-study-sustainable-palm-oil-doesnt-make-the-grade.html.


Jong, Hans N. “RSPO Fails to Deliver on Environmental and Social Sustainability, Study Finds.” Mongabay Environmental News, 11 June 2018, news.mongabay.com/2018/07/rspo-fails-to-deliver-on-environmental-and-social-sustainability-study-finds/.


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