What is sustainable palm oil?

Palm oil is the most widely used vegetable oil in the world and over 60 million tonnes of it is produced each year. Palm oil is derived from the palm fruit grown on the African oil palm tree, and currently approximately 90% of palm oil is produced in southeast Asia. 

What impact is non-sustainable palm oil having on our planet?

The large and rapid demand for palm oil has meant that much of it is being produced unsustainably. This has resulted in a range of environmental and social issues, including:

  • Unregulated deforestation. This is the clearing of large areas of forests that are done without abiding by the correct standards or carrying out assessments to ensure that forests are not being cleared which are rich in biodiversity, important for the ecosystem or culturally important to local or indigenous communities.

  • Growing on peatlands. These are effectively large composting areas that, once drained, releases greenhouse gas emissions and contributes to global warming.

  • Use of fire to clear areas. Fires are used to clear land before converting it into oil palm plantations but they are a major cause of habitat loss, contribute to air pollution and often expand outside of the plantation resulting in the burning of primary forest and areas rich in biodiversity. 

  • Biodiversity loss. The unsustainable practices used when producing non-sustainable palm oil, including unregulated deforestation, growing on peatlands and using fire to clear areas, causes a loss of biodiversity in that area. Biodiversity is all of the different types of life found in an area, including wildlife, plants and fungi.  

  • Displacement of local and indigenous communities. The legal rights of local and indigenous communities are not respected, including obtaining free, prior and informed consent when developing or expanding oil palm plantations and adhering to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and these communities are often forced to move from their land or territories 

  • Slave labour and complex human welfare issues. Human rights are not respected and practises which ensure the highest standard of human welfare are not carried out. This results in human rights violations, including slave labour, child labour, long working hours and no holiday entitlement or sick leave. 

Do manufacturers and producers have to use palm oil? Can we not encourage them to use a better alternative?

Oil palms (where palm oil comes from) are an incredibly efficient crop. They produce a lot of oil for the amount of land used – up to 4 to 6 times more than other oil crops.

Other vegetable oils are not as efficient, which means encouraging manufacturers to use different oils will lead to more land being converted to meet this demand.

Unlike many other oils, palm oil is also very versatile (it can be used as a liquid or solid and can be blended with other oils), long-lasting (it has a natural preservative effect), and has an absence of smell. This makes it the perfect oil to use in a range of products including food, cosmetics and cleaning products, which is why many manufacturers choose to use palm oil.

Unfortunately, it’s not possible to replace palm oil with an oil that causes no environmental damage as these do not exist.

Why shouldn’t I boycott palm oil?

Boycotting palm oil would increase the demand for less efficient oils and this would lead to more land being converted to meet this demand. Boycotting palm oil simply shifts the environmental and social issues associated with unsustainable palm oil to another oil industry. Furthermore palm oil supports the livelihoods of thousands of people around the world with 40% of all palm oil being produced by smallholders. 

Why isn't palm oil bad?

It is not palm oil that is bad, but the way it’s often produced. Oil palms are efficient crops which need less land to produce the same amount of oil as other oil crops. 

Is it just orangutans who suffer as a result of palm oil?

The rapid expansion of unsustainable palm oil negatively impacts not just orangutans, but many other species too including pygmy elephants and Sumatran tigers. It’s also caused the displacement of many local and indigenous communities. Palm oil production is now increasing in Africa and South America, which means more species could be negatively impacted, including gorillas, chimps and bonobos, but palm oil produced sustainably minimises this by safeguarding wildlife and protecting local people. 

What are the four levels of sustainable palm oil?

The RSPO recognises four levels of sustainable palm oil:

  1. Identity preserved – this is the highest standard. Identity preserved sustainable palm oil is 100% sustainable and has a fully transparent supply chain. 

  2. Segregated palm oil – this is the second best standard. Similar to identity preserved sustainable palm oil, but it does not have a fully transparent supply chain. 

  3. Mass balance sustainable palm oil – this is sustainable palm oil that has been mixed with unsustainable palm oil. 

  4. Book and claim – this is when manufacturers using unsustainable palm oil buy RSPO credits from certified growers, crushers and independent smallholders to support sustainable palm oil production. 

How sustainable are Bristol Zoological Society and their use of palm oil?

Bristol Zoological Society supports and is committed to using RSPO certified sustainable palm oil. We have audited our suppliers and identified those not using sustainable palm oil. We are in the process of working with these suppliers and will support them to improve their supply chains to use sustainable palm oil.