Cruelty Free Shopping Guide

Sustainable Palm Oil: More to Buying Cruelty Free

Key Points

  • Palm oil is the #1 vegetable oil worldwide. Most is used in food, and it's the main cooking oil in many developing countries.
  • To satisfy growing demand, palm plantations have expanded rapidly, often clearing critical habitat for endangered species.
  • "No palm oil" is not the sustainable option. Palm oil takes less land than other plant oil crops, making it the most environmentally sound plant oil, if sustainably grown. Replacement oils take 2-10 times more land to produce the same amount of oil. World Wildlife Fund & Rainforest Alliance agree: replacing palm oil with a different plant oil worsens deforestation.
  • Companies say they'll switch to sustainable palm oil if customers ask. Contact these companies and retailers and ask them to require 100% sustainable palm oil in products.

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Palm Oil - Why It's Important & Why It Must Be Sustainable

In personal care products, "cruelty-free" usually means "no animal testing." For many, however, cruelty-free goes beyond this. An increasing concern is the destruction of critical habitat to grow cosmetics ingredients, especially palm oil. Although most palm oil is used in food, some (< 10%) is used in cosmetics.

Palm oil is an important plant oil, not easily replaced in food or cosmetics, and if sustainably grown, it's also the best plant oil environmentally. The key, then, is to pressure companies to use only sustainable palm oil.

For more about this unique plant oil and companies who do and don't use sustainable palm oil, read on. If you're short on time, go here to ask major companies who are underperforming to do better.

Note: In this article, cosmetics refers to personal care products and makeup.

Palm Oil - Increasing by Popular Demand

Palm oil is an edible plant oil from the flesh of the oil palm fruit. The American Palm Oil Council reports that about 90% of palm oil goes into food. Major non-food uses are soaps and detergents, greases, lubricants, candles, and biofuels (R.E.A. Holdings, 2019).

Palm Oil Fruit
Fruit of Elaeis guineensis (oil palm). Photo credit: By Cayambe, March 2010 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13809442.

Unique properties for food prep

Palm oil has particularly nice qualities for food preparation: It's stable at high temperatures and has a high smoke point, making it good for frying. It contains a significant amount of vitamin E, a natural preservative that helps extend shelf life. And rare among plant oils, it is semi-solid at room temperature, making it a good replacement for trans fats.

Found in cosmetics products, too

Although cosmetics use is dwarfed by food use of palm oil, it's still an important market. Palm oil is often in bar soaps, where it's a key fat for soap-making. Palm oil components may also be in lotions, to help skin retain moisture; in shampoos and hand and body washes, to improve lather; and in hair care, for conditioning. Cosmetics rarely have palm oil itself as an ingredient; rather, they include ingredients derived from palm oil.

Rapid growth as world economies grow

Palm oil has grown rapidly to become the #1 plant oil in the world. The rapid expansion largely results from economic growth, especially in China and India, and from consumers' desire to switch from cooking with animal fats to cooking with vegetable fats (WWF, 2010). India, China, Indonesia & Malaysia use almost 50% of global palm oil (Union of Concerned Scientists, 2011). Palm oil is the main cooking oil in many developing countries, because it's relatively cheap and has those great food prep qualities.

Most sustainable plant oil if sustainably grown

We often equate cheap with "must be bad," but in this case, cheap is the result of an excellent environmental quality: Palm requires less land than any other plant to produce the same amount of oil. Coconut oil, which is the next highest yield plant oil crop, requires twice as much land for the same amount of oil (McDougall, 2014). Sunflower, rapeseed, or soybean oil requires 4-10 times as much land (RSPO, 2018).

Palm oil sounds great. So what's the problem?

Endangered Species
Critically endangered species, from left: Orangutan, Sumatran Tiger, Sumatran Rhino. Photo credits (left to right): © Lola Pidluskaya, Dreamstime; By Nichollas Harrison, July 2013 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Indrah_the_Sumatran_Tiger.jpg; By Willem v Strien, April 2008 - Own work, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sumatran_Rhinoceros_Way_Kambas_2008.jpg.

The Problem: Unsustainable Farming Is Destroying Critical Habitat for Endangered Orangutans, Rhinos, Tigers & Elephants

The demand for palm oil has triggered extensive clearing of rainforests for oil palm plantations, especially in Indonesia and Malaysia.

These rainforests are the last refuge of many endangered and critically endangered species. WWF states: "Of all WWF's priority agricultural commodities, palm oil poses the most significant threat to the widest range of endangered megafauna - including tigers, elephants, rhinos and orangutans."

Deforestation for oil palm plantation, Indragiri Hulu, Riau Province, Indonesia. Photo credit: By Aidenvironment, June 2010, CC BY SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Riau_deforestation_2006.jpg.

The Sumatran orangutan, Sumatran rhino, and Sumatran tiger are now listed as Critically Endangered, which means they face an extremely high risk of extinction in the immediate future. Plantations are now moving into Africa, threatening the big apes, too.

The Solution: Consumer Pressure to Force Changeover to Sustainable Palm Oil

Sustainably harvested palm oil is available. Most is certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), but Rainforest Alliance and Ecocert consider sustainability when issuing their certifications, too.

RSPO Certification Label

The brainchild of WWF, RSPO was founded in 2004 (RSPO, 2019). RSPO's approach is to have all stakeholders in this issue work out solutions together - a roundtable approach. Its members include plantation companies, processors, traders, consumer goods manufacturers, retailers of palm oil products, banks/investors and environmental and social welfare groups.

You can see this group has many competing interests, so compromise is necessary. Criticisms of the standard over time have been many, including by RSPO members WWF and Rainforest Alliance, but have resulted in a steadily strengthened standard. Most recently, this has included better reporting of potential worker abuses added in 2018 and a no deforestation requirement added in 2019. "No deforestation," which bans all forest clearing, is stronger than "no net deforestation," which allows clearing one area if an equal area is replanted.

Sustainably produced palm oil is about 19% of total palm oil production as of July 2019 (RSPO, 2019). Yet, much goes unsold for lack of consumer demand.

In 2013, nearly half of certified palm oil failed to find a buyer. It had to be sold off as conventional palm oil without the price premium (The Guardian, July 4, 2013). In a worrisome sign that low consumer demand continues today, many 100% sustainable consumer brands reported in their 2018 RSPO filing that they don't use the RSPO seal on labels because of lack of consumer interest.

The palm growers look at this through a strictly business lens. In a November 2014 article, The Guardian quotes Yusof Basiron, CEO of the Malaysian Palm Oil Council: "The Malaysian palm oil industry aspires to supply what the consumers want. Customer is 'king'. We can supply RSPO-certified or zero deforestation palm oil or normal palm oil, based on demand, preference and price being offered."

The solution is straightforward. Consumers (we) must let consumer brands know this is important to us. We must press consumer brands to use only certified sustainable palm oil, and we must press retailers to stock only brands that use certified sustainable palm oil.

Contact These Companies

Find a sample email and contact information for unsustainable brands here and for retailers here.

And support brands using mostly sustainable palm oil - maybe send them a thank you, but also urge them to stay focused on what more they can do to help.

Note that the list of brands using mostly sustainable palm oil is longer than those using mostly unsustainable, an encouraging change since our first version of this article in 2015!

For More Info

See The Search for Sustainable Palm Oil, Rainforest Alliance, August 2019.

Last updated: September 2019

Photo credits for feature image: Orangutan With Two Babies Photo © Lola Pidluskaya, Dreamstime. Burning Forest Deforestation Photo © Pabloborca, Dreamstime

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