What is Palm Oil? And Why is Palm Oil Bad?

What is Palm Oil? And Why is Palm Oil Bad?


Palm Oil is multi-billion dollar a year megacrop whose cultivation is largely responsible for the critical endangerment of Indonesian and Malaysian orangutans, elephants, tigers and rhinos in what the UN has called a conservation emergency. Many people don't realise that several rainforest-dwelling species are one step away from extinction due to palm oil cultivation.

90 percent of the world’s palm oil is currently being produced in Malaysia and Indonesia, where it’s estimated that an area equivalent to 300 football fields of virgin rainforest is cleared each hour to plant palm, the oil from which is turned into myriad ingredients that find their way into everything from peanut butter and scented candles to biofuels. Consequently, Indonesia has been awarded the less than laudable distinction of being the country with the fastest rate of deforestation.


What's wrong with palm oil?

 Only a small fraction the animals that live in these forests can survive in palm oil plantations, and many, such as orangutans, are considered pests. The COP estimated in the 2006 alone, 1500 orangutans were clubbed to death by plantation workers. Palm Oil cultivation is also responsible for 10% of total green house gas emissions.

 You see, the specific problem with palm is that it’s being planted in such an ecologically sensitive region of the world, which also happens to be rife with cheap labour, corruption and lack of oversight, making it a godsend to big corporations looking to save money.  

Those who argue that palm oil is necessary because it's a high-yield crop don't seem to understand that no crop can be high-yield enough to justify such widespread deforestation and species annihilation. Lower yield crops planted in a less ecologically sensitive regions would be far more preferable...and in fact these do exist, they're just not as cheap.  


What about sustainable palm oil?

In 2010 Unilever made a high-profile announcement that it would be switching to “sustainable” palm oil. This would be commendable if it weren’t for the fact that Unilever is a member of the Round Table for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), the self-regulating and self-certifying body that, claims to be not for profit, yet is made up of the very corporations that profit the most from the palm oil industry. Together, RSPO members like Unilever, Cadbury's, Nestle, Tesco, and L’Oreal (who used to own The Body Shop) make up 40% of the global palm oil trade, which sounds a lot like the fox being left in charge of the hen house, doesn’t it?

Even if you choose to believe the claims of the RSPO, in 2012, only 15% of the total palm oil produced around the world was even RSPO-certified. Most palm oil is not even claiming to be sustainable, which makes the hype created over sustainable palm seem like nothing more than greenwashing. According to Greenpeace, the “RSPO actually risks creating the illusion of sustainable palm oil, justifying the expansion of the palm oil industry.” 

"Sustainable" palm oil really just means using already cleared land, and because the global demand for palm oil is ever increasing, we need to prevent more virgin forest from being cleared by reducing overall demand. Reasonably priced, palm oil-free alternatives are a necessary part of the sustainability equation. 

How to Avoid Palm Oil 

 Avoiding palm oil in food has become easier for some of us since the EU passed legislation in December 2014 requiring that food labels specify type of fat (they can no longer just say vegetable oil, for example). But avoiding it in your cosmetics and toiletries, where it lurks under many a guise, can be really difficult.  

 Some smaller manufacturers might not even realise (we'll give them the benefit of the doubt!) that many of the ingredients they’re putting into their products are actually palm-derived. But there’s absolutely no excuse for the very large cosmetics brands that flaunt their cruelty-free credentials, yet continue to use palm oil and palm-derived ingredients in their products. 

 Part of the problem is a lack of transparency in the supply chain. Some of the ingredients below are listed as usually containing or usually derived from palm because when pressed, many distributors and manufacturer say the simply don’t know - that it could be coconut or palm or both.

 Key terms to watch out for:

 Easy to spot terms and indicators

Elaeis guineensis (botanical name)

Palm kernel

Palm fruit





Synthetic detergents and surfactants

Sulphates/Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS)

Stearic Acid



Used to kill or prevent microbial and fungal growth in a formulation




Use to create lotions, creams, etc.

Ceteryl alcohol

Glyceral stearate

Olivem/ Olivwax

Polysorbates (20, 80, etc)



Caprylic Capric Triglycerides


Vegetable Glycerine (unless otherwise specified)


This is by no means a comprehensive list. For more information download our pocket guide to palm oil.

The truth is that it shouldn’t be entirely up to the consumer to hunt down palm oil-free versions of their everyday products when the big companies that dominate the industry continue to use it in everything from crisps to eyeshadow. But the power is ultimately in your hands.

To learn more about the palm oil crisis and help save the rainforests and its inhabitants, please visit:



The Orangutan Project