August 10, 2018

Why is palm oil bad for the rainforest?

Palm oil. The ubiquitous ingredient you’re highly likely to be consuming every day in car fuel, cleaning products and food. It’s posing a tremendous threat to some of the world’s most biodiverse forest. But what is it? And what makes it so damaging?

Palm oil is made from the fruits of trees called African Oil Palms. Originating from west and south-west Africa, they were introduced to Indonesia and Malaysia in the late 19th century 1.

Since then, its use has boomed. That’s down to it being a super-efficient oil product, meaning a lot more can be produced per acre of land than other oils such as soybean and coconut.

Palm oil is now the most widely used oil in the world. Food, household cleaners, personal care and cosmetics all contain it.

But the way it’s grown is unsustainable. In order to clear land to grow palm, swathes of rainforest are burned, destroying habitat and homes and the fragile rainforest ecosystem. It’s a double whammy for the climate. Trees that remove carbon from the air are destroyed, removing their storage properties forever. And when the forest is burned, high levels of carbon dioxide and soot are released, a huge contributor to climate change.

Palm Oil Plantation, Papua New Guinea


Production on the rise

Papua New Guinea production increased by nearly 20% between 2011 and 2016. The Global Forest Watch reports that the nation experienced “70 per cent more tree cover loss in 2015 than in any [other] year on record”2.

90% of palm oil comes from Malaysia and Indonesia but predicted future hotspots include Nigeria and Cameroon. Orangutans, gibbons and tigers are among the 193 threatened species on the IUCN’s Red List that would be affected by the continued expansion of oil palm plantations into forest areas — a menagerie of biodiversity representing half of the world’s threatened mammals and almost two-thirds of threatened birds3.

How can you help?

Check the label. Sustainable palm oil does exist, but it’s often more expensive.

On a global level, there are many organisations working hard to regulate and improve the deforestation issues surrounding palm oil. But after 15 years only 17% of all palm oil produced is able to be labelled ‘certified sustainable palm oil’.

Consumer pressure is the only thing that will make producers consider more sustainable practices. Check labels, ask questions, and look for RSPO certified palm oil, whose producers must adhere to strict guidelines.


Keep Rainforest Standing

What’s in a name?

Palm oil may be found in more than 50% of products on supermarket shelves. But often it’s listed under a huge number of names which do not always include the word ‘palm’. This makes it difficult for consumers to know what is in the products they buy. To date, the POFCAP research team has identified over 1100 palm oil derivative ingredient names. Here are just a few:

Vegetable Oil, Vegetable Fat, Palm Kernel, Palm Kernel Oil, Palm Fruit Oil, Palmate, Palmitate, Palmolein, Glyceryl, Stearate, Stearic Acid, Elaeis Guineensis, Palmitic Acid, Palm Stearine, Palmitoyl Oxostearamide, Palmitoyl Tetrapeptide-3, Sodium Laureth Sulfate, Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, Sodium Kernelate, Sodium Palm Kernelate, Sodium Lauryl Lactylate/Sulphate, Hydrated Palm Glycerides, Etyl Palmitate, Octyl Palmitate, Palmityl Alcohol.


  • In good conscience, I can’t buy any product I know has PO in it. Even so-called ‘sustainable’. Destructuve farming on rainforest is just wrong, period. Encouraging its continued devastation is wrong, period. I let companies whose products I enjoy that now have PO in them know why I can’t buy them anymore in hopes they’ll change. 1,100 names for PO – hiding it – makes my conscientiousness difficult! It’s the only world we have, though.

  • Chloe Rickard says:

    Karin, it’s so great to hear that you’re contacting companies that use palm oil. Consumer pressure is the best weapon we have. Thanks for taking the time to comment.
    Communications Manager, Cool Earth

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