Living palm oil free is a huge and fantastic step towards living more ethically and sustainably. Grab a cuppa and get comfy because we're going to explore the problems with palm oil, look at where it's found, and how we can start living palm oil free and help save the planet in the process. Sound good?
What is palm oil?
This seems like a good place to start, doesn’t it? Palm oil is a vegetable oil which comes from the fruit of oil palm trees and is used in thousands of food and personal hygiene products. Palm kernel is the seed of the fruit of the palm oil, which can be found in livestock feed.
What’s the problem with palm oil? Why is it so bad?
Palm oil is grown across the world (we saw plantations in Morocco) but primarily in Malaysia and Indonesia. The map above is from Global Forest Watch and shows palm oil plantations throughout Malaysia and Indonesia - seriously recommend looking at the Global Forest Watch website if you have time.
So why is palm oil a problem?
Loss of habitat and species & animal abuse
Borneo, Sumatra, Malaysia, and Indonesia are home to majestic species such as tigers, elephants, orangutans, sun bears, rhinos, leopards and more. When their homes are cleared, they have nowhere to go, may end up being killed in order to clear the forest or during the clearing, or may end up in human-wildlife conflict situations. It’s estimated that a third of mammal species in Indonesia are critically endangered as a result of palm production.
Another big issue is that animals will be smuggled out of the forests to be sold as pets or for their body parts.
All of these are so far from ideal and it breaks my heart that humanity is still destroying habitats to make money.
Burning forests and environmental issues
One of the easiest and cheapest ways to clear-cut a forest is to burn it. Not only could that kill anything living in it, but it releases huge amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere. I don’t want to get into a full-on science lesson here (though I happily will - drop me a message), but trees store CO2. CO2 is a greenhouse gas, which contributes to global warming, so trees are pretty awesome for storing it for us. When we burn those trees, that CO2 gets released straight back into the atmosphere and is allowed to do naughty things.
We’re already kicking out enough greenhouse gases into the atmosphere without making things even worse. Burning forests = bad.
Human rights issues
As if this all wasn’t bad enough, palm oil is linked with human rights violations. Typically, the development of a palm oil plantation will be made out to be a good thing for the local people. “YAY! More jobs.” Until it turns out that sometimes they’re not actually jobs, it’s slavery and child labour.
Once you know that, you just really, really don't want to be supporting it.
What is palm oil labelled as?
Of course, the obvious thing you’re looking out for on labels is ‘palm oil’. The problem is that palm oil and its derivatives can be labelled as 200 different things! While it’s fairly easy to identify 'palm oil' and ‘palm kernel oil’, you probably wouldn’t recognise palm oil as any of these ingredients, for example:
- Vegetable oil or vegetable fat (not always palm oil, but it might be if the label doesn’t say ‘palm oil free’.
- Stearic acid
- Sodium laureth sulphate/sulfate
- Sodium lauryl sulphate/sulfate
- Octyl palmitate
- Palmitic acid
- Palmityl alcohol
- Sodium kernelate
- Elaeis guineensis
WWF have a guide which lists the most common names for palm oil and its derivatives.
Quite frankly, it’d be a pain in the ass to try and remember all of those and would make shopping a lot harder and more time consuming. I would recommend screenshotting the part of the WWF guide and saving it in your phone, or looking for labels which explicitly say ‘no palm oil’ or ‘palm oil free’.
Where is palm oil found?
Palm oil and its derivatives are found in thousands of food, skincare and personal hygiene products. The WWF state that palm oil is present in approximately half of all packaged products sold in supermarkets. That sucks big time and makes avoiding it hard - it’s ok, though, we’re gonna get there and remember you don’t have to do it overnight. Baby steps are fine.
And it gets worse. Palm kernel can be used to feed to livestock. According to Compassion in World Farming, the EU imports half of the world’s supply of palm kernel meal. The UK is one of the biggest users of this, along with the Netherlands, Germany, New Zealand, South Korea, and China. Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s a legal requirement for manufacturers to state whether or not meat has been fed on palm oil or not. If you eat meat and dairy, you can avoid this by buying meat and dairy that says ‘free range’, ‘pasture fed’ or ‘grass fed’ on the packaging.
This isn’t just an environmental issue because the use of palm kernel supports factory farming. Think about it, if livestock are kept outdoors they will eat what’s around them. Livestock kept indoors, on the other hand, need food to be taken to them.
Why do companies use palm oil?
Now you understand why palm oil is so bad for the environment, you’re probably wondering why companies still use it. Hmmm. I think you’re probably not going to be too surprised to hear that it’s because it’s cheap. Hands up if that surprised you. It’s also more productive than other oil producing plants as well - which is a double whammy for manufacturers.
What about ‘sustainable’ palm oil?
That’s a great question. Sustainable sounds good, right? If you look at the websites of companies using sustainable palm oil, it sounds amazing. It sounds like the solution we need to stop the deforestation of diverse rainforests. It sounds like the palm oil equivalent of rainbows and kittens. And maybe it is. But maybe it isn’t.
There are sustainable palm oil schemes, such as the RSPO - and you can see all the companies certified to their standards on their website. However, there are doubts about how effective and honest it is.
It’s entirely up to you whether or not you want to support sustainable palm oil - I, personally, am airing on the side of caution.
Ok, so you’re convinced; palm oil and its derivatives suck and you don’t want them to darken your kitchen or bathroom again. How do you do it? How do you start to live palm oil free?
Don’t worry, we’ve got this. Don’t try to do it all in one go because that might feel immensely overwhelming. Baby steps are cool. To help, you'll find a printable and pinnable PDF at the bottom which you can use as a handy reminder. Maybe stick it in your kitchen - and definitely make a sustainable living Pinterest board and stick it on there too. Ok, I'll quit with the shameless promotion.
Before you can quit buying products with palm oil in, you need to know what it’s in. As we read earlier, it is possibly in a lot of the things you’re buying each time you go to the supermarket.
I recommend making a list of products, and perhaps even the brands, you’ve bought which contain palm oil. Don’t forget that if you eat dairy or milk, take a look at whether or not you’re buying grass-fed or pasture fed as standard.
Research palm oil free alternatives
Now you know where palm oil is sneaking into your house, you can begin to look for alternatives. There are alternatives out there, but it will take you time either researching it online or staring at labels in shops.
Start making changes as you use things up
I think going cold turkey while trying to stop buying palm oil would be hard if it is in a lot of things you buy. I recommend replacing things with palm oil free products as and when you use things up. Let’s face it - you’ve already purchased the product and paid for it, so there’s little point you throwing it out and wasting it.
Make your own
Since palm oil is found in processed food, you could try your hand at making your own. Instead of buying biscuits, cakes, or bread with palm oil in it - crack out a recipe book or head to Pinterest to find some recipes and give it a go!
Some palm oil free companies
Here are a handful of companies I use that do not use ANY palm oil in any of their range. If you know of any other companies and want me to add them to the list - drop me a comment.
- Meridian: nut butters, cooking sauces, jams & snacks
- Pic’s peanut butter: yet more nut butters because I eat a lot of peanut butter
- Sweet freedom: they make some pretty tasty chocolate sauce
- Oatly: oat ‘milk’; you could argue this is a slightly grey one because they were using palm oil but are phasing it out. It’s certainly not in their standard oat milks - their website is very transparent, so I recommend looking.
- Bloomtown: the UK’s first certified palm oil free company, selling skincare products
- Rocky Mountain Soap Co: excellent sunscreen, soaps, skincare
Heh, that’s a pretty darn short list. Once I started thinking about the products I regularly used, I realised palm oil is still in some products I use, and while it might not be in some other products I use, the brand uses palm oil in other products. Ugh. What a minefield. This is why I don’t recommend trying to swap everything overnight.
If you want an easy place to see palm oil free companies in the UK, Palm Oil Free is a really useful website. I don’t think every company that is palm oil free is actually on there, though.
If you want to find out more about palm oil, the damage it causes the environment and the beasties which live in it, and how to avoid it, I found these resources super useful:
- Dead Zone: Where the Wild Things Were - Phillip Lymbery: a book which explores the damage farming has on ecosystems and the environment and includes a section on palm oil.
- Blood & Earth: Modern Slavery, Ecocide, and the Secret to Saving the World - Kevin Bales: fascinating and horrifying read about how the things we use day to day are linked to slavery and environmental damage.
- What’s the Beef with Palm - Compassion in World Farming: a four-minute video following the author of Dead Zone as he explains the problems associated with palm oil production.
- 5 minute info - Rainforest Rescue: a quick written overview of the problems with palm oil
- Say No to Palm Oil
Where do you stand on using palm oil?
If you're going palm oil free, I want to hear one product you love that contains palm oil that you're switching up. For me, it's Oreos. I love them but I think I need to learn to make my own.