Palm Oil: being part of the solution

Catherine Laurence has worked as a lawyer and environmental planner, most recently as a part time project adviser with a London-based charity working to reduce the ecological footprint of city-regions. She has been active with the volunteer advocacy group, London Vegan Campaigns since 2010, and co-ordinated the 2013 London Vegan Pledge, a free programme supporting participants to go vegan for a month, with a high proportion remaining vegan afterwards. (Hear the first episode of The Vegan Option, about the 2011 Vegan Pledge). She is now starting a new chapter in Brisbane, Australia, where she intends to continue working in the cause of a more just and gentle world.

The research I did for the Palm Oil show confirmed for me that if we care about the forests then (as well as being vegan, with our much-reduced forest footprint) there are some important steps we can take as individuals to make sure we’re part of the solution.

Avoiding Palm Oil

The most direct way to reduce our own contribution to the oil palm problem is to find products that don’t use its derivatives as far as possible. This will take pressure off overall demand for expansion while the industry moves towards better practices.

I accept that a wholesale move away from palm oil could increase demand for even more land-hungry oil crops in equally sensitive areas, particularly soy, as Darrell Webber of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) highlighted when he spoke to Ian for the show. However, when I interviewed land use change expert Eric Lambin, he pointed out that demand for palm oil is partly a result of cheap supply, so it’s wrong to assume that the demand for palm oil would always be displaced to other crops; nor would soy always be the alternative.

Pressuring companies

So I am convinced that we can help by avoiding palm oil where possible. At the same time, we can keep up the pressure for better practice within the industry. Companies do respond – many ethical brands have rejected palm oil altogether or moved to deforestation-free sources, and even multinational giants are responding. Starbucks for example have committed to move to certified sustainable palm oil (CSPO) by 2015. But action is not widespread or fast enough, and this includes some vegan (or predominantly vegan) companies like Jason who are still using palm oil from non-certified sources. We can certainly lean on them to honour their values of caring for animals and the planet by moving away from palm oil or sourcing responsibly.

In fact, I’d argue that we should all engage in consumer activism of this kind until we see real progress in the oil palm industry. This would at least partially compensate for the times when we unwittingly consume oil from converted forests, something that’s virtually inevitable given the ubiquity of this ingredient and the impossibility of checking every item we use.

It’s worth noting that a number of European countries have now pledged to ensure that the palm oil (and palm kernel oil) destined for their domestic markets will be RSPO certified by 2015. Good news for the Netherlands, Belgium, the UK and most recently France and Germany, and a hopeful precedent if other major markets follow suit. However, these are still only voluntary commitments, in most cases by trade associations who choose to buy in, and for these purposes the controversial GreenPalm certificates will count, so there’s still an imperative to keep the pressure on until actual change becomes evident.

If palm oil-free is not available…

As for CSPO, ethical consumers certainly have valid grounds for concern that the standards aren’t sufficiently demanding or well-enforced. Nonetheless, if a palm-free option is not possible, I believe that buying products bearing the CSPO label sends the right signals, particularly when we know that uptake of certified oil is still so low (around 15% of global supply). The RSPO can be justly criticised on many counts, but I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s our best hope if we accept the sad reality that the industry is here to stay and we want to see its practices improve across the board.

As for competitor certification schemes that set the bar higher, having a ‘gold standard’ does create a niche ethical product, but buying from this small pool would still encourage expansion by adding to overall demand and would not accelerate progress towards full industry buy-in as the RSPO aims to do. At the other end of the spectrum, I am dubious about Malaysia and Indonesia’s forthcoming country-specific certification schemes – although these signify government awareness that protections are needed, they will demand lower standards than the RSPO and it is worrying that they are being born of a perception that the RSPO is ‘too burdensome to the industry’.

Another factor to keep in mind is that the rainforests would continue to be in peril even if demand for palm oil disappeared, at least according to the president of Australian NGO, The Orangutan Project. In light of this, the Roundtable surely has a vital role to play in pushing towards higher standards of practice and accountability for all industry players.

The different RSPO labels

There are layers of certification, so the RSPO label may either say ‘Certified’ or ‘Mixed’. The former applies when the certified oil has been segregated and preserved through the supply chain all the way into the end product, whereas the latter means that the end product will contain oil from non-certified plantations, but the mass balance of CSPO is preserved – so the overall volume sold as CSPO is equal to the volume originally sourced from certified plantations. Obviously, the ‘Certified’ label provides greater assurances about the end product, although the RSPO emphasises that the mass balance scheme is important in widening the uptake of CSPO.

As for GreenPalm, this is the tradeable permits scheme that allows companies to ‘offset’ their use of non-certified palm oil by purchasing certificates that are sold into the GreenPalm market by RSPO certified growers. This is a significant step down from the ‘mass balance’ CSPO, and although the scheme is supposed to help fund producers to do the right thing, many equate it with greenwash due to the low cost of permits and its use as a marketing ploy by companies who may not even buy certificates to cover the full amount of palm oil that they use. As a result many believe GreenPalm is slowing progress towards the establishment of proper traceable supply chains and I believe we need to demand more than this.

A word of caution is also needed about companies who say ‘we are RSPO members’ or ‘our palm oil is sourced from RSPO members’. If they aren’t actually using CSPO, this means very little, as the bar for membership is very low: a commitment to support the Roundtable process and work towards sustainable palm oil production, procurement and consumption ‘to the best of their ability’. And we know that these commitments are too often honoured in the breach, so we should be demanding CSPO certified or mixed at minimum.

How to find out if a product contains palm oil

Conscious consumers might think they can simply avoid products that list palm oil in the ingredients. Unfortunately it’s not that simple, as it comes in the guise of numerous obscure substances whose names don’t feature the word ‘palm’ anywhere (note that palm sugar is not an oil palm product). Sometimes in cosmetics you might see the Latin name for oil palm, Elaeis guineensis, but again, there are many derivatives that might masquerade under other names.

In the case of food, it’s sometimes possible to make an educated guess – if the ingredients include vegetable oil and the nutrition information shows more than a small percentage of saturated fat, there’s a very high chance that it’s from oil palm. However, nutrition labels are not always present and the saturated vegetable fat could theoretically be coconut oil.

The upshot is that the only way to know for sure is if there’s clear labelling on a product, or by going straight to the producer to find out what their policy is.

Fortunately, a lot of work has been done on this already by NGOs, campaigners and others, and there are growing lists of palm oil-free products relevant to many of the main consuming countries. Many lists are also collaborative, so anyone who does research with a particular company can share their findings.

Mandatory labelling is obviously the ideal, but progress on this varies from country to country (in the EU, a new labelling law is due to come into effect in December 2014, but Australia and New Zealand have so far resisted legislating). However, many companies are already moving towards voluntary labelling and, with increasing awareness and consumer pressure, we can hope that there will be an increasing trend towards transparency.

So, in terms of the practicalities of avoiding palm oil, it’s really just a case of doing some research to find brands with policies we’re happy with, and then going with that. For example, the mostly-vegan Lush have a no palm oil policy. It’s easy to avoid in bread, and there are plenty of snacks with no palm oil. In the UK I got into the habit of using olive oil, flax oil, tahini or avocado instead of margarine on bread, and cooking with alternatives such as sunflower oil or apple sauce in baked goods. Here in Australia, I’ve discovered there are two types of palm oil-free vegan margarine: Woolworths Macro Soy Spread and Melrose Omega Care table spreads – surely a good precedent!

And, when I’m looking for something specific or wondering about the credentials of a new product, there’s usually help to be found via one of the lists below – though if not, it’s a good opportunity to make enquiries, thereby helping keep the pressure on…

Online Product Lists

I have provided some links to product lists and shopping guides for several countries below, to help in the quest to shop responsibly. Apologies for the limited geographical coverage – time and language limitations have restricted this exercise – but please feel free to share links for other countries using the ‘Leave a reply’ box below.

Among the various product lists by region, there’s also one that is dedicated to vegan products worldwide, so this is first up:

Global list of vegan palm oil-free brands

The vegan-run ethical news site, One Green Planet, has also done some research to compile a Guide to vegan palm-oil free products, which includes responses from companies and contact details to pressure those who are still using oil palm derivatives. Many of the brands listed are sold internationally, and the beauty of this site is that they focus purely on brands that make vegan products. They’re actively inviting additions to the list so add yours via the comments.


Ethical Consumer has a Palm Oil Free Product List, divided by category. This lists companies that use no oil palm derivatives, together with information about the sourcing policies of companies that do. Subscribers (there is a 30-day free trial option) can also access more detailed reports covering a full range of ethical issues, including whether a product is vegan.

There’s no UK-specific Facebook page gathering palm oil-free products, but the Rainforest Foundation does regular articles on this topic so it’s worth liking their page. Note there is also a page calling on the UK’s Kerry Foods (makers of ‘Pure’ vegan margarine) to stop using palm oil.

Australia and New Zealand

The Australian group Palm Oil Action has an extensive list of fully palm oil-free products in their Shopping Guide, which includes a downloadable PDF that seems to be updated annually, with regular additions appearing on the accompanying web page.

There’s also a dedicated online shop bringing together Australian made Palm Oil Free Products for home delivery in Australia.

A comprehensive guide for palm oil-free products in New Zealand has been prepared by Auckland Zoo (I know, it’s a zoo, but as conservationists they obviously care deeply about this issue and their staff have put together the guide in their own time). Like most of the others, this list is collaborative, so contact them if you have information on products not listed.

Campaign group Say No to Palm Oil have also compiled a guide to products found in Australia and New Zealand. This consists of three lists: one naming brands that use non-certified palm oil, another listing those that use CSPO, and another for entirely palm oil-free products.

Another list for both Australia and New Zealand is on the Borneo Orangutan Survival (BOS) Foundation, which itemises products that are either palm-free or use CSPO, though does not distinguish between these.

On Facebook, there’s a page devoted to helping people buy palm oil-free in New Zealand and Australia. There’s also a dedicated palm oil-free Vegan Australia page.


The leading US campaign group is Palm Oil Consumer Action. They do not provide product lists but focus instead on campaigns to raise consumer awareness and to press for American companies to source genuinely sustainable palm oil. However, palm oil is much more easily identified in US food products due to the regulations on labelling of oils so this makes it somewhat easier to avoid.

The US NGO Rainforest Action Network also runs a powerful palm oil campaign targeting companies that use ‘conflict palm oil’ whose cultivation causes habitat loss, climate change and human rights violations.

On Facebook, the Palm Oil Consumer Action page has regular updates on campaigns that they and others are running.


My searching didn’t yield any Canada-specific product lists; the only articles I found on palm oil consumer activism referred to the USA’s Palm Oil Consumer Action site. Please do add further links and info via the comments if you know of any.

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4 responses to “Palm Oil: being part of the solution”

  1. Imogen Michel says :

    These are really great and useful tips, thank you 🙂 I’ll definitely be checking out the UK lists for palm oil-free vegan products.

  2. Robert Goodland says :

    The over-riding point is that there can be no sustainability of any activity that needs rainforest to be destroyed.

    Here is RainforestUK’s excellent guidance on oil palm-containing products

    Date: 02/09/2013
    In the latest investigation carried out by the Rainforest Foundation UK and Ethical Consumer magazine, over 25 of the UK’s biggest skincare companies were surveyed about their use of palm oil or its derivatives, a key ingredient in cosmetics.

    The survey – part of RFUK’s’Appetite for Destruction?’consumer guide to palm oil content in products – was carried out in response to the increasing threat that unsustainable palm oil is posing to the world’s rainforests, and consequently, to the people that rely almost entirely on these forests for their livelihoods.

    Some of the biggest names in skincare including Clarins, Estée Lauder and Superdrug, as well as ‘ethical’ brands Jason and Avalon, have scored poorly, while the top-scoring companies in the survey include Little Satsuma, Pure Nuff Stuff and REN.

    Simon Counsell, Executive Director of The Rainforest Foundation UK said:

    “Today we call on skincare product companies to face up to their environmental responsibilities, reduce their use of palm oil, and help ensure the long-term survival of Africa’s rainforest, its people and unique wildlife.”

    Click here [link missing – Ian] to see the complete guide on skincare products and find out more about the ‘Appetite for Destruction?’ campaign.

  3. utilitarian says :

    It kind of amazes me to see no mention of palm oil that is sustainably grown (deforestation free) in colombia, brazil, and papua new guinea. for example, organic smart/earth balance are sustainably grown in brazil by agorapalma.

    • Catherine Laurence says :

      Hi Utilitarian,

      We did look into these for the show and would definitely agree these sources are much more ethical. However, based on our research and what the experts told us, I still came to the conclusion noted in my blog post:

      “As for competitor certification schemes that set the bar higher, having a ‘gold standard’ does create a niche ethical product, but buying from this small pool would still encourage expansion by adding to overall demand and would not accelerate progress towards full industry buy-in as the RSPO aims to do.”

      That said, I agree it’s a nuanced issue and difficult to know where to draw the line. Interested to hear people’s thoughts…


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