2012 – a Palm Oil free year?

I consider myself a fairly ethical individual. Not a goat-rearing, hair-shirt wearing, placard-waving vegan: but the sort of person who recycles, buys ‘ethical’ products, says no to plastic bags when I can and is generally environmentally aware. OK so I fly and I drive a petrol-powered car, so I’m no ethical saint, but I think I’m on the right track. Yet there is one thing I am doing every single day, mostly unwittingly, that’s arguably more harmful to the planet than owning ten Hummers and flying to New York fifteen times a year: using Palm Oil.

By now, most of us will have read somewhere about the evils of Palm Oil, perhaps registered something about the fact that Palm Oil = destruction of the South-East Asian rainforest. But aside from thinking ‘Oh, that’s awful’ before putting down the newspaper and carrying on with your day, how much have you really considered the matter, or thought about quite how much you  – we all – use the stuff?  The scary truth is that Palm Oil is in 50-60% of the products we use and consume. We brush our teeth with it, moisturise our faces with it, wash our hands in it, spread it on our toast, feed it to our dogs and eat it daily. This dastardly oil sneaks its nefarious way into every nook and cranny of our existence.

Take my bathroom as an example. An examination of its contents last night revealed over six products that had it lurking in their ingredients. And all the products in my bathroom are made by ethical brands who trade on being green, paraben free, against animal testing etc.
Palm Oil plantation next to virgin rainforest, Borneo
Even worse, Palm Oil comes in a number of disguises. Very rarely will it reveal itself simply as ‘Palm Oil’. Instead it hides under a confusing array of pseudonyms such as; elaeis guineensis, sodium lauryl sulphate, sodium laureth sulphate, cetyl alcohol, stearic acid, isopropyl, palmitate, steareth-2, steareth-20 and fatty alcohol sulphates. Apart from needing a PhD in pharmacology to comprehend this labelling, you also need to go around with a list of these names in order to banish it from your shopping basket. And there is absolutely no law in the UK which forces companies to state simply whether a product has the evil oil in or not.

Why should we give two hoots about Palm Oil though? Why the fuss? Well, it always helps to see things first hand, and I’ve been fortunate enough to spend some time working in Malaysia and Indonesia, and to witness the catastrophic effects of Palm Oil production with my own eyes. The South-East Asian rainforest is the oldest consistent rainforest on earth, with a biological richness and diversity unequalled even by the Equatorial or Amazon rainforests. Yet thanks to the rapacious growth of Palm Oil, these forests are being destroyed at a terrifying rate. Borneo and Sumatra, once covered in primary rainforest, now have barely any left. Rather, both islands have been covered in thousands of hectares of uniform ranks of Palm Oil plantations. Orang Utangs are vanishing, the Penan nomads have nowhere left to go, the Sumatran tiger is almost extinct and countless other species of flora and fauna are teetering on the edge of existence. Moreover, if we humans destroy all the rainforests on this planet, we are cutting down our lungs and humanity will not be able to survive. It really is that simple.
Wild Orang Utang, Borneo, 2008

It may sound dramatic, but making a stand against Palm Oil and trying to save the last of South-East Asia’s rainforests could be the single most important thing in terms of saving our planet. So why not try and make 2012 a Palm Oil Free year? Isn’t our planet worth it?

Palm oil facts*

  • 90 per cent of Sumatra’s orangutan population has disappeared since 1900. They now face extinction
  • 90 per cent of wildlife disappears when the forest is replaced by palm, creating a biological desert
  • 98 per cent of Indonesia’s forests may be destroyed by 2022 according to the United Nations
  • 43 of Britain’s 100 top grocery brands contain or are thought to contain palm oil

How to spot Palm Oil

Palm Oil is hidden in products under numerous guises – here are a few of the main culprits.

Vegetable oil, Sodium Lauryl Sulphates, Sodium Dodecyl Sulphate, Palmate, Palm Oil Kernal, Palmitate, Stearic Acid, Glyceryl Stearate, Elaeis Guineensis, Steareth-2, Steareth-20, Hydrated palm glycerides, Cety palmitate & ocyl palmitate (anything ending with palmitate)

Some common products that contain Palm Oil

Philadephia cheese, Heinz baked beans, Pedigree Chum dog food, Hovis bread, Persil, Flora margarine, Head & Shoulders shampoo, most biscuits and chocolate.

Here’s a link to an exhaustive list of products with and without Palm Oil

A few brands that don’t use Palm Oil
It is possible to find food and cosmetic products that don’t contain Palm Oil and there are alternatives – it’s just that Palm Oil is cheaper and easier to produce than the alternatives so most brands use it. 30 years ago, it was hardly in anything…
Alpine Coffee Shop, Betws-y-Coed, Wales
Little Satsuma beauty products

Please note, many brands now use RSPO (Responsibly Sourced Palm Oil). However, there are questions over this and the best policy is to avoid it altogether.

*Source: The Independent