Who really pays the price of palm oil?
The destruction of the natural habitats of Orangutans by the palm oil industry is frequently discussed in the media. However, you rarely see what this really means for the animals. The video above clearly shows the consequences of our palm oil consumption for the endangered apes. The ‘forest men’ (orang for person and utan for forest) are not the only ones suffering because of the palm oil industry. Different species of tigers and rhinos also lose their natural habitats because of this industry. On top of that, people employed in the palm oil industry suffer from the bad working conditions.
If you consider all of this, you could ask yourself if it wouldn’t be better to give up on palm oil or cut down your consumption as much as possible. This can be tricky though. According to the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, 50% of all products in Germany contain palm oil (Perras 2020). This raises the question whether or not it is really possible to boycott this ingredient.
How did it come to this?
According to The Guardian, palm oil was established in the industry when the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ‘gave food manufacturers three years to get rid of all trans fats from every margarine, cookie, cake, pie, popcorn, frozen pizza, doughnut and biscuit sold in the US. Virtually all of it has now been replaced with palm oil’ (Tullis).
As you can see, palm oil is used as an ingredient in many different kinds of food, besides the ones mentioned above, in sweets, puddings, yoghurts and convenience food, such as sauces. However, if you have an eye on the ingredients, you can find palm oil free alternatives. In this post, I will elaborate on why you should consider using these alternatives.
What are WE supposed to do about this?
I think anyone can do something about this and it solely depends on whether or not you you really want to do something. It merely depends on one’s priorities. I also think that we should be aware of the consequences of our actions and our consumption in general. Based on that one should act according to their morals. If we really want to change something, we have to adapt our consumption accordingly.
Since there is a tendency for unnecessary products like sweets to contain palm oil, it makes sense to avoid buying them and to buy the palm oil free alternatives instead. I’m pretty sure that humans can survive without cookies. Plus, it is really simple and takes no effort whatsoever. You just have to look at the ingredients and if something contains palm oil you decide against buying it, especially if it is just a snack.
I try to avoid buying palm oil-based products and stick to alternatives. Especially when it comes to ‘luxuries’ like sweets and foods that are not part of my main meal, I decide against buying them because frankly, I just don’t need them.
My skin is sensible and so far, I did not manage to find any working alternatives, so I do not consider the ingredients of care products and stick to the ones that work well for me. Nonetheless, I think it is at least a step in the right direction to avoid morally questionable products. By avoiding palm oil in your diet, you can, at least to some extent, set an example against the standards of that industry every day and promote a positive change, since the industry does not profit as much as it would without a boycott. It is particularly easy to find out whether or not there is palm oil in one’s food. Therefore, boycott is a means to promote change that is accessible to everyone and every single day. So why shouldn’t we use that possibility and consider what we buy?
There are several reasons. First, the palm oil industry threatens endangered species. It also destroys rain forests, which are indispensable for the climate of our planet. Beside these environmental problems, there are also problems concerning the working conditions of people working in that industry.
According to Amnesty International, workers for the concern Wilmar, which provides 43% of all palm oil, barely earn enough money to survive. In some cases, the workers only earn 2.5 US-Dollars per day. Even products that are labeled as ‘sustainable’ by the Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil, can contain palm oil for which workers were exploited (Amnesty International 2016)’.
Why should I bother?
It is our irresponsible consumption of palm oil that makes the aforementioned things possible. During the cultivation of palm oil, human rights and environmental standards can be disrespected and our irresponsible consumption of these products supports that industry.
In order to change things, we as members of society have to promote a change in the palm oil industry. The following quotes illustrate this and show the lack of transparency in that industry.
‘A single palm oil mill – there are hundreds in Malaysia alone – can buy fruit from a multitude of suppliers, and with all its formulations and derivatives, palm oil has one of the most complicated supply chains of any ingredient. Even when the sustainability certification system is working as it is supposed to, environmentalists have criticised such programmes. For instance, a product can earn a “certified sustainable” label even if 99% of the palm oil it includes came from freshly deforested land’ (Tullis).
‘One problem is that there is still a market for palm oil products from deforested areas, so broader initiatives than certifying some areas as sustainable production are needed, otherwise unsustainable producers can simply move to clear new areas of forest and still find a market for their goods’ (Harvey).
Both quotes suggest that the palm oil industry is in dire need of change. Especially the second one illustrates that normal citizens and consumers have to adapt their consumption to make a difference. We can use our consumption to force the industry to improve its standards and to use more sustainable palm oil by boycotting its products until it is established that its palm oil is sustainable. If there were higher standards that provide more transparency and protect the rights of the workers and the environment, one could consume palm oil without a bad conscience. Humans, animals and the environment would profit from this.
The Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) suggests the same and confesses that it has to improve its strategies and interventions, while saying that they are already trying to do so (Harvey).
‘The situation on the ground requires companies, government and civil society to work together to achieve the mission of the RSPO’ (Harvey).
The World Wildlife Fund also suggests that more sustainable palm oil is necessary and that the RSPO has to improve its standards:
‘For instance, “The Palm Oil Innovators Group” hopes for stricter criteria. Besides us, other NGOs, such as Greenpeace are involved in this. The members of “Deutsches Forum Nachhaltiges Palmöl” [German Forum for Sustainable Palm Oil] also aim to improve the conditions in palm oil production’ (Petersen).
Palm oil is arguably more sustainable than the ingredients that were used before it. However, the standards for its production are heterogeneous and enable fabricators to use palm oil from unsustainable providers. This results in the destruction of the habitats of orangutans, rhinos and tigers, all of which are endangered species. Since rain forests are destroyed for the cultivation of palm oil, it is questionable if palm oil is sustainable.
Apart from environmental standards, the human rights of workers are disrespected in the cultivation of palm oil, which again highlights the need for clear and transparent standards for truly sustainable palm oil. In order to achieve this, we should try to decrease our consumption of palm oil to show the industry that there is need for more sustainable alternatives. Solely boycotting the products of concerns like Nestle appears to be less impactful, since the problem seems to be a structural one within the palm oil industry. I think that we should try to consume more responsibly and that we have to be more aware of sustainability in general. Instead of just boycotting one concern or brand, we should boycott questionable products as a whole, at least to the extent that is possible.
What can I do?
- keep an eye on the ingredients in convenience and fast food and decide against products with palm oil, especially sweets
- reconsider whether or not you want to invest into something that causes suffering of other humans and animals
- DIY / DO IT YOURSELF: cook fresh food and bake baked goods by yourself, so you know the ingredients and can avoid palm oil
- watch out for ingredients in products from Aldi and Burger King, but chains like the latter should be avoided when it comes to sustainability anyway
For those who are interested in palm-oil free cooking, I linked the blog Vegan Richa below. There, you will find palm oil-free vegan recipes. That way you can see what’s possible without palm oil and animal products.
Feel free to comment below. All my sources are linked below, too.
Thanks for reading.
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