Parsing Palm Oil

October 18, 2022

This time of year, conservation-minded organizations shine a light on the ubiquitous use of palm oil in products people use every day. That’s because this oil, harvested from the African palm oil tree and now an important part of the economy in places like Indonesia and Malaysia (and also a growing piece of the financial puzzle in South American countries), is truly found all across the supply chain—including your Halloween candy.

In fact, you probably use palm oil constantly without realizing it; it can be found in 50 percent of the packaged items you buy from the grocery store. This includes the foods we eat, the cosmetics we put on our faces, the pet products we give our furry best friends, and the cleaning and bath products we use from soaps to lotions.

Demand for palm oil is increasing, too, thanks to the development of bio-fuels and trans-fat health concerns. Palm oil is currently the most widely-produced edible oil, and it is found in your shopping cart under more than 600 names, like stearic acid, sodium lauryl sulfate, and palmitate.

Photo courtesy of Cheyenne Mountain Zoo.

The Palm Oil Problem

When harvested unsustainably, palm oil production leads to the destruction of millions of acres of rainforest in biodiverse areas like Borneo and Sumatra, which are home to orangutans and other endangered species. With palm oil monoculture plantations also sprouting up in South American countries like Colombia, Guatemala, Brazil and the Honduras, sensitive areas around the Amazon River are also being affected.

And the solutions aren’t that easy, because there are no good alternatives to palm oil. It’s the most productive crop of the edible oils, which means that it can actually be more environmentally friendly than other oils, like soy or rapeseed (canola), because it requires less land to create more oil. Sunflower oil, another alternative, has seen its supply drop drastically in recent months because the two highest producers of that oil in the world are Russia and Ukraine, together accounting for around 70 percent of the world’s supply—and the current conflict between them is decimating the supply chain. Climate issues, like hurricanes and drought, are also affecting oil production in other areas.

Because of these and other factors, simply boycotting palm oil is not a realistic or sustainable option.

Palm oil fruit at a Lonsum mill in Indonesia. Photo courtesy of Cheyenne Mountain Zoo.

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil

Enter the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, or RSPO. This organization is made up of stakeholders from all stages of the palm oil supply chain, including small farmers (smallholders) involved in palm production as well as corporations and environmental and governmental organizations. It is also supported by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), of which Lincoln Park Zoo is a member.

The RSPO currently includes more than 5,400 voluntary members from 99 countries. Its goal is to advance and promote the use of sustainable palm oil through dialogue between all the various stakeholders. To do this, it has created 157 pages of standards that govern aspects of the industry, from ways of handling conflicts with wildlife to the use of ethical labor (no slave or child labor, for example). It currently certifies 19 percent of palm oil in the world as sustainable, with a goal of doing more.

Basically, RSPO-certified oil is held to a higher standard so those who buy palm oil can be assured that the product is not causing harm to the environment or to societies.

Palm oil trees in the Goualougo Triangle.

Take Action With Us

At Lincoln Park Zoo, we are working to “walk the talk” by improving our use of palm oil-friendly donated products to reach a sustainable-only goal going forward. If you, too, are concerned about the palm oil issue and want to make sure you’re buying approved products for Halloween and year-round, you have options.

For one thing, you can look for the RSPO-certified logo when you buy items at the store (note that some brands may choose a different version, though). Fellow AZA member and partner Cheyenne Mountain Zoo produces PDF shopping guides of palm oil-friendly products, including ones for Halloween, for cleaning supplies, fast food restaurants, pet supplies, and more.

However, if you’re at the store already and looking to find out if a product you want to buy, you can also download Cheyenne Mountain Zoo’s PalmOil Scan app from the Apple Store or the Google Play store. Simply scan the barcode of the item and it’ll instantly give you a Sustainable Palm Oil Rating for that product. If the product isn’t listed yet, the app will tell you—and an admin at Cheyenne Mountain Zoo will use that feedback to improve the offering for other users.

It may sometimes be overwhelming trying to do all the things that are good for the environment, but this is an easy way to take action on this issue and make a difference every day!

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