/ Sustainability

Should we really be avoiding palm oil?

I think the issue of palm oil is much more complex than simply cutting it out altogether. Instead, we need to work towards a sustainable solution. Do you agree?

Palm oil is so versatile and cheap it’s become ubiquitous. WWF says it’s in nearly half of supermarket packaged products – from cosmetics to food.

However, it’s now so shrouded in controversy that many call for a complete boycott of it.

Palm oil in food products has to be labelled, but in beauty products it can be hidden in not-so-plain sight, disguised within other ingredients: from something as vague as ‘vegetable oil’ or as widespread as sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS).

Environmental impact

Beauty brands don’t have to label palm oil at all, misleading for those who are determined not to support its use because of environmental concerns.

There is no denying that the palm oil industry has flattened vast swathes of rainforest, destroying precious areas of biodiversity and carbon sinks. However the palm oil issue is nuanced.

Stopping its use would cause other, perhaps even greater, problems. It has the highest yield per acre of any oilseed crop, so replacing it with another oil, such as rapeseed or sunflower, would cause even more deforestation.

The real solution is to work towards sustainable palm oil.

A sustainable way forward

All the biggest hair care brands (Unilever, L’Oréal UK, John Frieda and Procter & Gamble) are signed up to the Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).

This group ensures that members source palm oil in a way that leads to no deforestation, no loss of biodiversity, and which supports communities that financially rely on palm oil farming.

While the group has met criticism, many still believe it’s the best way towards a sustainable palm oil world.

Ideally brands would label when they are part of the RSPO, just like those that use the Fairtrade label.

But until the stigma against palm oil (justified given the industry’s past) is gone, brands will avoid it. Until then, if you want to avoid unsustainable palm oil when shopping, check the RSPO website to see if the brand is certified.

Do you agree that the solution is sustainable sourcing, rather than avoiding palm oil completely? Let me know in the comments.


I hope that most people are aware that production of palm oil has a history of causing environmental damage but are less likely to know that palm oil is used to make products such as the detergent sodium lauryl sulphate – found in many products including shampoos.

Peat-based composts and metaldehyde slug pellets are still sold despite less damaging alternatives being widely available, so I don’t think we can rely on consumers choosing sustainable palm oil or alternatives.

Rather than having a Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil, it would be better to regulate the industry, so that it is provided with a level playing field and consumers can carry on buying the products they need.

In the meantime, it would be useful to have some guidance from Which? to advise us which brands/products to choose.

It’s good to have another Convo on sustainability. Thanks Aaron.

Being in about 50% of products on our supermarket shelves, it’s essential to make this ingredient sustainable. We agree, sustainably produced palm oil should just be the norm. We are working with local governments to apply the RSPO Principles & Criteria at the jurisdictional level. It’s great that the State of Sabah, Malaysia, the Seruyan District in Indonesia, and Ecuador are working towards jurisdictional certification.

Until we achieve 100% sustainable palm oil worldwide, we must provide tools for consumers to easily make the right purchasing decisions. If you are based in the UK, we recommend Giki Badges. This mobile app allows shoppers to detect sustainable palm oil in products by scanning bar codes. Let us know how you get on!

I have tried the Giki app on products round my home and several times in supermarkets. It’s easy to use and scanning barcodes works very well.

Showing whether palm oil is sustainable seems to be one of the better features of the app. It was interesting to discover that the app also covers a variety of other features but awarding of badges seems a little haphazard. To give one example, one brand of coffee beans receives three out of six Giki Badges for ‘healthier option, free from additives and plant based’ whereas another gets three out of seven for ‘healthier option, free from additives and responsibly sourced’. On a third bag, both responsibly sourced and plant based badges appear, giving a score of four out of seven. Very confusing. 😕

I was surprised how few products I buy contain palm oil.

It’s very disappointing to see how many products are awarded zero Giki Badges but tapping the ‘Learn more’ button suggests that in many cases this may be due to lack of information.

Perhaps the best way to get us buying products made using sustainable palm oil would be to have a recognisable logo. The coffee beans I buy usually have a Fairtrade or Rainforest Alliance logo. Interestingly the Giki app acknowledges only Fairtrade as being responsibly sourced.

Miss claudia says:
31 May 2020

The plamoil ingredients is not sustainable ingredients we shouldn’t be Using an rainforests it apart of our environment to have an future please stop this madness it wrong to use our environment for business please stop this right now please thank you

Guidance would be very useful. If we have to search for hidden ingredients in everything we buy, shopping will become even more tedious than it is already. I understood that there were health risks attached to palm oil in food but there may be reasons to use it elsewhere and environmental reasons why we shouldn’t.

Here’s a list compiled by WWF of ingredients that could be (and in many cases are) produced from palm oil:

Vegetable Oil, Vegetable Fat, Palm Kernel, Palm Kernel Oil, Palm Fruit Oil, Palmate, Palmitate, Palmolein, Glyceryl, Stearate, Stearic Acid, Elaeis Guineensis, Palmitic Acid, Palm Stearine, Palmitoyl Oxostearamide, Palmitoyl Tetrapeptide-3, Sodium Laureth Sulfate, Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, Sodium Kernelate, Sodium Palm Kernelate, Sodium Lauryl Lactylate/Sulphate, Hyrated Palm Glycerides, Ethyl Palmitate, Octyl Palmitate, Palmityl Alcohol

We agree it should be made easy for everyone to shop and know about ingredients.

The list shared by @wavechange is very useful. You can also download the Giki Badges app and scan barcodes to detect palm oil in products and find out whether it’s been produced sustainably.

I am not optimistic that knowing the ingredients will alter many peoples buying habits.

Thanks RSPO. I’ve downloaded the app and will try it next time I’m in a supermarket.

Your list is nearly as bad as the hidden names for milk wavechange and that is not good when you are shopping for an allergy.

Products should not be able to hide behind alternate names.

I agree that it would be helpful to standardise on a single name, especially when referring to chemicals. ‘Vegetable oil’ and ‘vegetable fat’ are no use for those who have a problem with these products. Elaeis guineensis is a species of palm tree, so that does not belong in the list. 🌴

Off topic, but action is needed to require the ingredients of unpackaged products to be identified – for example bakery goods and alcoholic drinks.

The stigma attached to palm oil seems to be largely the deforestation to provide land for plantations. However, as the introduction says “Stopping its use would cause other, perhaps even greater, problems. It has the highest yield per acre of any oilseed crop, so replacing it with another oil, such as rapeseed or sunflower, would cause even more deforestation.“. Nor, from the information I have found, does he RSPO seem to make much difference to land use. it also seems that Soya takes up far more land – around 8x – and produces significantly less oil (although the residue is used for animal feed).

We have deforested many areas to provide land for food – plant and livestock. I’d suggest simply pointing the finger at one product like this is simply avoiding the overall issue of how we use land to produce food. That used for livestock is generally an inefficient source of food.

Maybe we will one day have to consider more carefully about how we use the things we grow. For example, when we use large quantities of palm oil in cosmetics, we might think about just how necessary those cosmetics are – or not.

I’m not sure what we mean by “regulating the industry”.

There are various articles about regulating the industry freely available, including this review: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/rego.12220

I do not see any such regulation as being unique to palm oil. It would seem relevant to many sectors, whether in the food production industry, forestry, building and other infrastructure projects, where land is “repurposed” and income is generated.

As I suggested above, this is simply one part of an overall issue. I believe the only way out of this is to change the way we use products, stop using those that deplete resources but are unnecessary, make the best use of what are necessary and avoid waste.

Commercial activities are extensively regulated for a variety of reasons, as we have discussed elsewhere. It would be useful if all palm oil production was carried out under what is currently considered to be best practice rather than relying on voluntary schemes. In certain ways the production of palm oil is efficient, as you mentioned earlier. I first learned about intensive production from a book used in A-level teaching.

It would be interesting to discuss unnecessary products elsewhere. There’s a growing demand for men’s cosmetics. 🙁

The problem seems to me to be that regulation only works in those countries that choose to accept regulation. It usually adds to costs leaving those other countries being more competitive. We see the results of that in all products.

I am not against regulation but often more fundamental cures are needed. I do not see why men’s cosmetics, no more than any other, should be regarded as necessary and require the use of a resource that could be used to better effect. But that is the way of the world and until we tackle unnecessary consumerism we will be stuck with ever-increasing use of scarce resources. Until…….

I don’t disagree, but let’s get the regulation in place and try to tackle the other problems.

Thanks for sharing your perspective, Malcolm. Land use issues are indeed common to many agricultural commodities including palm oil and soy and we must look at the way a crop is grown, not at the product itself.

It’s positive to see there are many initiatives to promote sustainable farming and sourcing – RSPO in palm oil, but also the Round Table for Responsible Soy, the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef, etc.

Follow our social media channels to stay tuned on what we’re doing towards making sustainable palm oil the norm.

Some yeast and other fungi are capable of accumulating large amounts of oil when grown under appropriate conditions. This has been researched in the UK and other countries. It’s possible to produce oil similar to palm oil in large stainless steel ‘bioreactors’, which are routinely used for production of food and pharmaceuticals. Since these tanks and the equipment used to extract the oil can be used almost continuously. they occupy a relatively small area of land compared with palm plantations.

At present, microbial oils, as they are called, are not economically viable because conventional production is so cheap, but perhaps it’s time to take action. Microbial oils rich in the polyunsaturates such as DHA are already in use as replacements for fish oils, which are considerably more valuable than palm oil.

I wonder just how much use could be made of human waste, apart from fertiliser and methane. The practice of using potable water to sluice it into the sewers seems a waste of resource. In a (much) more macabre line, we may well be faced with recycling our dead in the future, a process that the rest of the animal kingdom seems to have as a routine.

Sustainable, carbon neutral, ethically sourced, Fair Trade, organic, natural, environmentally friendly, eco-friendly, green, renewable, zero-waste, local, wild-caught, artisan, hand-made, BPA-free, sugar-free, GMO-free, safe working environment, fair pay, free-range, recycle, free from……

The above are all words that you now see on just about every product you buy because they have been a major problem in the past.

Has the world suddenly turned good? Somehow I don’t think so. How can we trust all these claims?

As you say, palm oil has a very bad reputation. Deforestation can destroy habitats for animals such as orangutans, rhinos, elephants and tigers. It can provide employment for small farmers, it is reported that young children work in the production of oil. The trees do not require as many pesticides or fertilisers as other oils, air pollution from fires to clear the land contributed to at least 12,000 premature deaths in Indonesia. . . . It is a murky world.

Much damage has already been done so I suppose we must now treat those trees as sustainable. How we stop further deforestation I don’t know, but it needs to be stopped.

Hi there, the unsustainable production of palm oil has indeed done a lot of environmental and social damage. With growing global demand for vegetable oil, palm oil is here to stay and companies must urgently move towards sustainable methods.

With requirements such as no deforestation, no fire, no new planting on peat and respect of human rights (Decent Living Wage, no child labour, protection of human rights defenders, etc.), the RSPO Principles & Criteria set a standard for sustainable production.

Find out more about the RSPO standard in this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GQ9HN-dyRFg

Alan says:
7 January 2020

We’ve visited places where rain forests have been replaced by massive palm oil plantations. It is not a good sight but on the other hand we are not the people who have to make a living somehow.

Two thoughts.
1. Companies should stop using palm oil as the ‘go to’ option in their products because it is easy to obtain and relatively cheap. They should look for alternatives where they exist and we should take a hit on the cost subsequently rising.
2. Palm oil should only be sourced from locations where local monitoring and control are managing development. A bit more transparency in identifying the source would be good.

michelle desilets says:
7 January 2020

What’s worse than palm oil for the environment? Other vegetable oils, IUCN study finds
#ChooseSustainable #PalmOil and #SaveOrangutans!

michelle desilets says:
7 January 2020

The best alternative to palm oil is sustainable palm oil.

Hi Alan, we share your concerns about significant deforestation in producing countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia.

One of the main reasons palm oil is used in many products is because it is a highly versatile crop and the palm tree produces up to 10 times more oil on the same amount of land compared to alternatives. This research by IUCN found replacing palm oil may just move the issue to other crops: https://www.iucn.org/news/secretariat/201806/saying-no-palm-oil-would-likely-displace-not-halt-biodiversity-loss—iucn-report

Palm oil can be produced without deforesting. The RSPO standard includes a no deforestation requirement, and prohibits the use of fire as well as new planting on peatland. The industry must work together to engage all companies to stop deforestation and produce palm oil sustainably.

michelle desilets says:
7 January 2020

Orangutan Land Trust, like other organisations involved in this issue, do not advocate a blanket boycott of palm oil. Instead, we encourage brands, retailers and consumers to demand sustainable palm oil.

Verity Smart says:
7 January 2020

Being sustainable isn’t enough on its own we need to be reducing our use of all oils because all are problematic, the difference is palm oil is much more pervasive and destructive with a higher profile. It’s as much about a mindset and our excessive consumption in general as much as palm oil is an issue for endangering wildlife, indigenous peoples and forests. Humans are far too binary in their approach to looking at issues and not seeing the wider picture. That is why a shift in mindset is the real solution to this issue and all the others.

If we would decrease meat consumption by 30-50% we simply would not need deforestation to create arable land and crops.

Hi Verity, thanks for sharing your perspective on this issue.

Shifting mindsets towards more sustainable consumption will certainly help to alleviate some major issues. We advocate for the sustainable production of palm oil when it is used; our requirements including no deforestation, no fire, no new planting on peat and respect of human rights.

With palm oil being found in about 50% of products on supermarket shelves, increasing the number of brands and retailers using certified sustainable palm will help consumers to make more conscious choices when shopping and reduce environmental impacts.

Heather Oliver says:
7 January 2020

I support the Roundtable SPO. It might not be perfect but it is a good start.

Jane Griffiths says:
7 January 2020

Here in Newquay we are raising awareness about palm oil and trying to encourage consumers to choose sustainable palm oil products when they shop with the help of Giki Badges. It is our aim to become a sustainable palm oil town, following in the footsteps of Chester.
Sir David Attenborough is wholeheartedly supporting the campaign saying that: “We can protect wildlife by buying products made with deforestation free sustainable palm oil. From companies that support local people, use existing palm oil plantations without cutting down more rainforest.”

Fiona McLauchlin says:
8 January 2020

Only sustainably sourced palm oil should be available.

Yes. “Signing up” to whatever scheme isn’t good enough.Palm oil not certified from sustainable sources should be banned. How much checking of websites/apps is going to be done by individuals? Is this checking going to have a significant effect on in the unsustainable palm oil industry, on product manufacturers? We need to be realistic.

We need an app to show us what products can be trusted to be sustainable, whether they contain or could contain palm oil or not. Palm oil plantations aren’t the only ones that can be unsustainable, there are so many others, eg cocoa and coffee plantations, bananas, strawberries, and so on. The fishing industry too for example has a lot to answer for, and cosmetics. I would like to be able to point my mobile at the bar code of any product and know immediately whether the product or its ingredients are sustainable or not. A big ask, because a lot of research, and probably also co-ordination with several organisations, would have to be done, but it may make some manufacturers think.

Add fair trade info (thinking of eg strawberries again, look up Spain, exploitation of workers and illegal use of the Donana Nation Park water), also nutrition info and additives (Yuka app does that). It would be fantastic. (Even better if printed on box/label, but is that going to happen? Not in a million.)

Make all non-fair trade, unsustainable and dangerous products illegal.

I can dream.

We could ask whether cosmetics are essential?

They might be for some but most could easily live without them and look just as good. I would distinguish between cosmetics and toiletries.

We could distinguish between cosmetics and toiletries. As to their necessity, I would bear in mind that cosmetics may not necessarily have to do with vanity, but with eg concealing scars post surgery and make the realistic difference between being psychologically housebound or not. Even still nowadays, women especially are sensitive to their appearance, even if we’re all beautiful just the way we are :). Example of necessary toiletries, depending on the job you’ve got, hand moisturisers are essential to combat dermatitis as it can prevent you from doing your job, never mind be unsightly and painful.

Absolutely. Medications and similar products are essential. Do they use palm oil?

Some of them may. Please see this about SLS: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/1DjRTHSCZK3h7V6dlxyHRdP/are-my-wash-products-damaging-my-skin . It seems that Aqueous Cream BP was prescribed until recently. It begs the question, what else is there out there?

And what about sunscreen lip balm, face cream and body lotion that may not be prescribed, but are essential (even in Scotland 🙂 ). Your life saver could irritate your skin and not be environmentally friendly.

It’s a minefield.

We need something simple to navigate, not dozens of schemes and their certifications.

Yesterday I called in to a shop in town that refills your own containers so that plastic waste can be avoided. I was assured that they choose products containing sustainable palm oil. I showed the chap in charge the Giki app and tried to demonstrate it in operation, but without much success because the barcodes on the bulk packs in the shop were not recognised by Giki. Not a convincing demonstration, but he is going to download the app.

Seems to me there are three factors not well explained in the support for Palm Oil use:
– why people think Palm Oil is traceable. Without robust traceability methods (and even a dye could be replicated) how would we know the Palm Oil being used is actually from “good” sources? What in reality would prevent anyone from supplying Palm Oil as “sustainable” but actually using slash and burn techniques to farm it? If you can’t prevent this then isn’t it better not to take the chance?
– what does “sustainable” actually mean? Does it mean after they have killed the wildlife and cleared the forest they will be able to grow Palm Oil for years to come? Are they really trying to claim zero impact on the environment? And, that leads to the next point:
– why is there no information looking at what happened to the supply of oils replaced by Palm Oil? Before Palm Oil, we still enjoyed all the products that now use Palm Oil. Is this farm land no longer being used? Are we simply replacing farm land in developed countries with cleared rainforest in others? Does that mean we now have two lots of land cleared for producing oils, one for the predecessors to Palm Oil and one for Palm Oil?

For my money, I don’t see enough to convince me to support these organisations the way Which? does. I won’t be buying Palm Oil products.