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Is sustainable palm oil really sustainable?

Is sustainable palm oil really sustainable? The burning of ancient peat lands is fuelling your car. Orangutans are dying because of your shampoo. Land is stolen from the world’s poorest for your chocolate bar.

Sound far-fetched?

Unfortunately, this is the reality of palm oil. These damaging revelations have led to a global debate on palm oil and its part in biodiversity loss and climate change. In 2004, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was established in an attempt to “make sustainable palm oil the norm”. It’s only after compliance with the RSPO’s Principles and Criteria that certification is awarded to “sustainable” palm oil products. But can that little sustainable palm oil logo be trusted? Is sustainable palm oil really sustainable? After extensively researching on the topic, we believe sustainable palm oil is sometimes just a label used for marketing purposes, and the signs that these plantations are eco-friendly is quite debatable. 

Let's see how things really are in a bit more details:


the globalisation of palm oil

In the tropics of West Africa, the fruits of the Oil Palm (Elaeis guineensis) have been processed for edible oil for thousands of years. The richly coloured and flavourful oil became a staple of traditional West African cuisine but transformed into a global commodity when trade brought the plant to the far east.

Over time, the tedious and inefficient process of making palm oil was industrialised. The rich oil became colourless and tasteless. Modern breeding programs improved yields dramatically.

A single fruit bunch from an improved Oil Palm can yield over 6kg of oilin the right conditions, making it a very productive source of vegetable oil. It’s hardly surprising, then, that palm oil has worked its way into many of the products sitting on store shelves.

Everything from sandwiches to shampoo contains ingredients derived from palm oil. Even cars and trucks have been force-fed this tropical diet- nearly half of the palm oil imported into Europe is used as biofuel!  


palm oil 17 sustainability development goals

In 2015, the UN launched their 2030 Agenda, complete with 17 Sustainable Development Goals. The Agenda claims to be a “blueprint for shared prosperity in a sustainable world”. It’s no surprise, then, that many of the Sustainable Development Goals deal with “social sustainability”.

Some of the goals include: 

  • No poverty
  • Gender Equality
  • Zero hunger
  • Peace, justice and strong institutions
  • Good health and well-being
  • Decent work and economic growth

How does the palm oil industry stack up against these goals?

Some media outlets have criticised the boycott of palm oil (including sustainable palm oil products), saying that doing so will hurt the development of impoverished workers who have come to depend on a palm oil economy. While it’s true that palm oil farming has been somewhat of a boon to some smallholders, not all have benefited from the industry.  


forced labour palm oil plantations

Because the palm oil industry in Malaysia relies heavily on migrant labour, plantations and mills resort to a long-outlawed method of keeping their workers in check. They steal their worker’s passports. Some of the big multinationals have reduced this practice due to pressure from NGO’s and the media, but they hide behind the statement that “changes won’t happen overnight” while continuing to benefit from systemic forced labour. And because these practices are so widely accepted, forced labour is rife within small-to-medium operations.

The Schuster Institute also reported on a story of forced labour, where a young man was confined to a palm oil plantation and forced to work for free for two years. This was despite the work contract listing wages that would be considered typical for the palm oil industry in Indonesia (about £68/month).


child labour palm oil

Amnesty International found a range of situations that lead to child labour, not least of which was the implementation of unfair workloads. Harsh penalties for failing to meet unreasonable quotas lead many workers to pull their children out of school to help work.

Rather than examining their quotas and penalties, plantations simply turn a blind eye.

Think “sustainable” plantations fared better?

Amnesty International also reported that three of the five oil palm growers investigated for labour abuses were certified by the RSPO as “sustainable”.


discrimination against women in palm oil industry

Women are often only hired as casual workers because companies don’t want to invest in staff who “might get pregnant and leave”. They thus face uncertain financial security and are frequently put on only seasonal jobs, such as spraying the plantations with pesticides and herbicides.

Despite multinationals like Wilmar proudly sharing their new safety practices (consisting of women wearing raincoats, gloves, and masks around chemicals), many of their plantations continue to have women working in unhealthy and unfair conditions. Women have reported that the companies force them to spray chemicals (like paraquat-based herbicides, which continue to be used despite ban), with less-than-adequate gear.

The unprotected workers get routine blood tests, and when their blood work comes back with dangerously high levels of chemical poisoning, they are simply shunted onto alternate duties. What health issues lay in their future? They’re not told. Medical care? There’s none given.


While it’s true that the palm oil industry has provided new jobs, a survey by the International Trade Union Confederation found that precarious work was the new norm. Many Indonesian workers are contract-based with no social protection or job security. The government has allowed this shift to lure more foreign investment.

When some workers went on strike to protest lack of Union rights, they were handed “resignation” letters and sent on their way. Hardly the sign of healthy economic development.


In a paper for the Canadian Journal of Development Studies, researcher Oliver Pye writes:

“This rather simple causal chain – climate change mitigation policy → land grab → acceleration of emission rates through land-use change – illustrates how transnational dynamics can have unpredicted and perhaps unintended impacts.”

He writes about how so-called “green grabs” (stealing land to turn into protected national parks to create a more eco-friendly national image) are displacing entire villages and denying underprivileged landholders the land they’ve been tending for generations.

Also under scrutiny are the “land grabs” committed by the convenient allocation of land for oil palm plantations. These concessions squeeze out small-holders for the benefit of corporate land uses. Small-holders have also been victims of “accumulation by dispossession”, as Pye writes:

“Potential returns from palm oil are a strong incentive to sign over land to companies or join a plasma project, in which farmers are allocated land around the core plantation and produce oil palm for the company. In theory, small-holders remain small-holders, just with a more lucrative crop and with better infrastructure, supplied by the company."

However, as Semedi and Bakker (2014) show in their discussion of Meliau in Sanggau district, land accumulation soon sets in, with the wealthier farmers buying up land from poorer sections of the population who are not as successful.”


It’s clear that the RSPO is falling short in their goal of a sustainable palm oil industry that supports fair treatment of workers. With social sustainability violations rife, and traceability low, consumers just can’t tell whether their certified palm oil products are contributing to the problem or not. 


deforestation and orangutan extintion

Deforestation of tropical rainforests has long been the most recognisable issue surrounding palm oil production. Ancient rainforests are been destroyed to make way for growing palm oil demand. The loss of biologically diverse habitat throughout Southeast Asia has become so synonymous with palm oil production that the critically endangered Orangutan has unwittingly become the face of palm oil.

But it’s not just the Orangutans that are losing their homes; a number of rare and endangered species- many not found anywhere else on Earth- are losing habitat to commodity agriculture. Some animals are so rare they have yet to be named. But isn’t sustainable palm oil supposed to be better?

Unfortunately, it might be worse, as a recent study has shown. The paper entitled “Sustainable palm oil may not be so sustainable” analysed data collected over 15 years, scrutinising some 2,210 “concessions” (licensed palm-growing areas). The study showed that total tree loss was slightly higher in certified “sustainable” plantation areas. The study’s lead author Roberto C. Gatti, of Tomsk State University in Russia, made the following statement to The Independent:

“…in terms of deforestation, there is no significant difference between a certified and a non-certified palm oil plantation. Both need (or needed in the recent past) the complete removal of the original tropical forest.”

The RSPO also keeps coming under fire by various agencies (including in two recent reports by the Environmental Investigation Agency) for their regulatory loopholes, “substandard assessments”, and corrupt auditors.

While it seems that the RSPO is genuinely fighting for a more sustainable palm oil industry, with this mammoth not-for-profit organisation, it could be a case of the left hand not knowing what the right is doing.


Clearing tropical rainforests with machinery is expensive and often impractical. Because of this, the most common land preparation is done using the “slash and burn” technique. The practice is so wide-spread that the fires and smoke can be seen from space.

Slash and burn agriculture adds insult to injury. Not only is precious rainforest habitat lost, but burning of these rainforests is a massive source of pollution and contributor to climate change. The smoke alone causes a multitude of problems on a wide scale.

In 2013, the smoke of Sumatran fires choked the air as far as Malaysia and Singapore. The air quality index for good health is a maximum of 100, but during these fires, the area suffered a record-breaking air quality index of 400. The Ministry of Health scrambled to prepare hospitals for the increase in respiratory-related emergencies while people queued through stores for basic face masks. Indonesian officials weren’t bothered, however. In the face of this threat to human health, one minister accused Singapore of “behaving like a child”, and blamed the fires on “nature”.

Is it just the broad-scale burning of trees and other vegetation causing these problems? No, there is another factor unique to the palm oil plantation region; tropical peat reserves. The rainforests of Southeast Asia often sit upon rich sponges of ancient organic matter. When land is drained and burned, the fires can crawl through the carbon-rich peat, causing fires to spread uncontrollably.

Burning of peatlands is also far more damaging to the atmosphere than normal wildfires. Given the influx of haze events across Southeast Asia, the CSIRO conducted a study to investigate the atmospheric pollution associated with peat fires:

  1. Peat fires release much greater amounts of heavy metals into the atmosphere, including 15 times more mercury than upland forest fires. 
  2. Unlike forest fires, smouldering peat produces incomplete combustion, resulting in the release of more VOCs (volatile organic compounds) known to cause cancer, like benzene and toluene.
  3. Burning peat found in tropical rainforests emits more methane (a potent greenhouse gas) than peat in temperate climates. Researchers backed this up in the Journal of Geophysical Research, finding that peat fires burn ten times more methane than savanna fires, and three times as much carbon monoxide.


palm oil is bad for the planet

Combine the dangers of burning down the rainforests with the corruption and loopholes within “sustainable” certification. We’re left with a very real, very complicated problem. Is there such a thing as sustainable palm oil?

While many organisations are fighting for that future, we’re just not there yet. The small number of plantations that are doing things responsibly get lost amongst the sea of fake sustainable palm oil.

Perhaps it’s time we return palm oil to the family farms of West Africa, where men plant oil palms throughout a bio-diverse plot, where women use mortars and pestles to create a rich cooking oil that nourishes their families, and where children are free to go to school. Until the palm oil industry becomes truly sustainable, we should go Palm-Oil-Free. For a list of palm oil pseudonyms, visit the Orangutan Alliance’s page of alternative names for palm oil.

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