Close Login
Register here
Forgot password
Forgot password

Close Inspiration on environmental sustainability, every month.

Currently 5,988 people are getting new inspiration every month from our global sustainability exchange. Do you want to stay informed? Fill in your e-mail address below:


Want to be kept in the loop? We will provide monthly overview of what is happening in our community along with new exciting ways on how you can contribute.

Close Reset password
your profile is 33% complete:
Update profile Close

Community community Social Sustainabilty

Hurting the environment: the palm oil paradox

Share this post
by: Sharai Hoekema
hurting the environment  the palm oil paradox

At the beginning of the 2010s, big companies such as Dove, Mars and Nestlé were publicly shamed for their continued use of palm oil. Not because it is a product that harms our health directly, or because it contains hidden substances - but rather because its production really hurts our environment. And while they pledged at the time to stop their purchase of “dirty” palm oil and make serious efforts to alleviate the damage that they caused; a story recently hit the news that most of them are allegedly ignoring these promises made and continue to use protected land for the growth of palm oil.

According to the whistleblower, these companies have largely set aside the plans in favour of gearing up their production. “For too many years, Nestlé, Mars and Hershey have cherry-picked their [palm oil] targets and then moved the goalposts when they don’t achieve them. There’s just no further room for error to prevent the extinction of tigers, orang-utans and elephants.”

Why is palm oil so important to those companies?

Clearly there must be something rather important to this illustrious substance, for these large multinationals to risk seriously damaging their reputation. And sure enough, it is. Palm oil is an edible vegetable oil harvested from the pulp of the fruit of the oil palm. It is one of the world’s most adaptable and frequently used commodities. 

Besides, it is quite cheap - while posing unique characteristics that make it desirable for its lubricating, cleansing and vitamin-rich nature. This combination of low costs and high effectiveness make it very appealing for those companies who want to keep their costs down while maintaining their product quality. Despite the negative attention that it may draw to them.

Who uses palm oil and what are the alternatives?

In large areas of the world, palm oil is used as a common cooking ingredient - not only as an ingredient, but also as oil. Large parts of Africa and Brazil and the whole of Southeast Asia heavily rely on it for their daily diet. This appeal largely comes from the low cost and high saturation when used for frying. Thus, a huge portion of products that they use on a daily basis will contain palm oil in one form or the other. This ranges from chips, chocolate and instant noodles to toothpaste, lipstick and body lotions. 

India is one of those countries where it is still frequently used. Latest estimates put the number of Indians that use palm oil on a daily basis at a staggering 50%. And this is still growing: the rapidly developing country is only just now moving on from other sources, such as oils based on groundnut and coconut. And with the country growing rapidly and becoming richer (consumption has doubled in recent decades), palm oil has become indispensable in feeding its 1.3 million population.

The country is facing a huge challenge in finding ways of bringing cheap sources of food to their rapidly expanding population, while facing an alarmingly high poverty rate and very limited use of land. At the same time, India really wants to boost its domestic production and reduce its reliance on imports. For this, palm oil seems to be the only solution that ticks all the boxes, and as such, the Asian country is working hard to ramp up its domestic production, freeing up huge amounts of land for this purpose.

App to discover palm oil in products.

Why is palm oil getting so much negative attention?

So far, so good: it looks as if this raw material can solve a stringent issue. However, there is a flip side; and a reason why there has been such a public outcry against the use of palm oil. Its production causes severe environmental damage (deforestation, habitat, degradation, climate change, animal cruelty) and often violates human rights. Sustainability is something that most producers are not concerned with, nor about traceability. 

The production has singlehandedly endangered species, such as the orang-utan and Sumatran tiger, and pushed those to the brink of extinction. And while some might say that India freeing up available land will lead to a more sustainable way of production, this could not be further from the truth. The harsh reality is that India does - and will - only produce a fraction of the palm oil needed to meet the growing demand. 

The remainder is - and will be - imported from other countries, particularly Malaysia and Indonesia. And these rising imports will put more pressure on those countries, which in turn leads to worse circumstances; once again encouraging “dirty palm oil” producers to benefit - without due cause for the damage done to the environment.

There you have it, a doubled-edged sword. In order to feed the growing population of India, they will have to import significant amounts of palm oil - the core component of their people’s diet. The strain that this puts on our environment is tremendous and causing irreparable damage. 

Feeding ànd saving the planet simultaneously appears to be a trickier issue than most will think, although it will be a crucial one to solve if we are to even take a remote shot at saving our world.


Get updates on environmental sustainability in your mailbox every month.


Whatsorb info

whatsorb whatsorb whatsorb