20 April 2015
4 min read

Palm oil is a common ingredient found in about half of the packaged products we use daily. How can we avoid using the 85% of it that is produced harmfully?

Palm oil is a common ingredient found in about half the packaged products we use on a daily basis – it’s in processed food, cleaning products, and pretty much all of our cosmetics.

The problem is, about 85% of palm oil is produced in a way that encourages illegal logging of rainforests, peat lands, and terrible abuses of human rights and animals.

There are some companies are making great steps to ensure that palm oil is sourced legally and sustainably, but only 18% of the total supply is certified as responsible, and much of that is questionable. In Australia, it isn’t compulsory to label that a product contains palm oil, so it’s important to be informed so you can make truly ethical decisions.

Here’s eight ways to make better decisions so you can help save threatened animals including orangutans, pygmy elephants, sun bears, and the adorable slow loris.

1. An unlikely start: paper

It isn’t the first thing you think of when you think of palm oil, but there is a direct link to irresponsibly sourced wood pulp. Asian Pulp & Paper have been accused of being involved in illegal deforestation in Indonesia and Malaysia. To make way for palm plantations, tropical forests in these countries are being illegally cleared at a rate as of about six football fields every minute. And, the United Nations says that globally, deforestation is responsible for up to 20% of carbon emissions. Reducing, reusing, and recycling paper will help the problem, as will choosing recycled and Forestry Stewardship Council-certified paper and timber.

2. Brand knowledge

Knowing which brands use responsibly sourced palm oil gives you true power as a consumer. Some brands should be commended for having committed to using 100% sustainably sourced palm oil – as long as you can read between the lines of the wording. For example, some brands – in the past, Unilever – deny the use of palm oil, instead saying that they use ‘derivatives’ of palm oil. But derivatives are still made from palm oil. For more examples of like this, check out the Palm Oil Investigations’ info about common palm oil statements from companies.

3. Choose 100%, pure love

Give GreenPalm a ‘face palm’. Brands sometimes state that they are GreenPalm certified, but this does not mean they are using certified-sustainable oil. GreenPalm certificates can be simply purchased to offset usage – these certificates help the brand support the production of sustainable palm oil, but each of the product’s ingredients are most likely made with irresponsibly sourced palm. Also, to show the RSPO logo, a brand can simply have committed to using sustainable palm oil in the future – they might not actually start using certified oil for another few years.

Only ingredients labeled as 100% segregated, or 100% identity preserved palm oil can be considered truly certified-sustainable. Nestlé is good example of this, using 100% segregated certified sustainable palm oil in their Australian factory (but they don’t clearly label which of their products have palm oil in them).

4. Scan the barcode

In a world-first, an Australian not-for-profit has created a free product barcode scanner app for smart phones that reveals any unregulated palm oil ingredients. It’s easy enough to use in the supermarket, and when a ‘fail’ is noted, another suggested product is recommended instead. Just type Palm Oil Investigations into iTunes, or click here for Android. Bear in mind that finding a palm-oil free shampoo is pretty tough in Australia, but there’s still some responsibly sourced hair care.

5. Learn to love labels

As there’s no compulsory labeling in Australia, palm oil is the ‘hidden’ ingredient – most often, the only way you can tell if it’s in a product is from reading the ingredients on the label.

The problem is, there are around 200 different names to call palm oil. Get familiar with some of the most common names of palm oil and it’s derivatives, including:

  • Vegetable Oil or Vegetable Fat
  • Sodium Laureth/Lauryl Sulfate (in almost everything that foams, can also be coconut-derived)
  • Sodium Kernelate
  • Hydrated Palm Glycerides
  • Sodium Dodecyl Sulphate (sometimes just listed as SDS or NaDS)
  • Sodium Lauryl Lactylate/Sulphate, Sodium Lauryl Sulfoacetate, Sodium Isostearoyl Lactylaye
  • Elaeis guineensis or Elaeis oleifera (the palm tree species)
  • Palmate, Palmolein, Palmitic Acid, Palm Stearine, Cetyl Palmitate, Octyl Palmitate or Palmitoyl oxostearamide
  • Glyceryl Stearate, Stearic Acid, or Steareth
  • Cetyl Alcohol or Palmityl Alcohol.

If a product label has one of these ingredients, but no reference to being certified 100% segregated, or 100% identity preserved, choose another product.

6. Armchair activism

A CHOICE survey found that 70% said clearly listing palm oil is important to them. If it’s important to you too, contact your state minister by signing the magazine’s petition for mandatory labeling of palm oil. Zoos Victoria have also created a ZooperMarket, where you can find details on all the major brand commitments, and contact the makers of your favourite products to voice your concerns.

7. Better yourself

To create a good habit, it helps to set an achievable goal. Perhaps challenge yourself to avoid uncertified products, and make a donation to help reduce the harmful effects of palm oil if you have lapses. Some good NGOs to donate to include the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme,  Palm Oil Investigations, and The Orangutan Project. Or, try the 28-day Palm Oil Challenge at www.saynotopalmoil.com.

A good hint when it comes to food is to eat real whole food instead of packaged – it’s better for you anyway! Palm oil contains more than 50% saturated fat, which has a bad effect on cholesterol levels. The World Health Organisation, The Australian Dietary Guidelines, and Australia’s Heart Foundation all advise against eating palm oil.

8. Volunteer your time to the cause

Fundraise for a cause, and see the world at the same time! You could use your travel to volunteer your help as well. Check out RAW Wildlife Encounters, WWF-Australia’s Trek for Orang-utans to Borneo, and 1 Million Women Sumatra Challenge 2015 later this year as well. The best types of tours are those that have a fundraising component as well, such as the 12-day tour with 1 Million Women that has a fundraising target of $3,500 before the tour starts, part of which will go to the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme.

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