Giving up palm oil might actually do more harm than good…
When I volunteered myself to take up the challenge to go palm oil free for a week, I didn’t know what I was getting in to. I knew that most of my favourite biscuits and chocolate bars had palm oil as an ingredient, and so I guessed this would be the toughest part of the challenge – saying goodbye to my (everyday) snaccidents! Wrong.
Palm oil is literally everywhere, it is found in about 50% of all packaged products sold in the supermarket. You’ll find it in foods such as bread, ketchup, crisps, pizza, ice cream, cereal, peanut butter, instant noodles and margarine. In household products you’ll also typically find it in shampoo, washing detergent, soap, lipstick, deodorant, toothpaste…the list goes on. And if you don’t see ‘palm oil’ in the ingredients list of any of these products, don’t be fooled – many food products will list palm oil simply as ‘vegetable oil’, and there are also approximately 200 alternative names for palm oil.
So, as you might have guessed by now, trying to check the label of every product in Hong Kong (especially when you can’t understand some of them!), or checking with every restaurant when eating out, if they’ve used palm oil, is a pretty impossible task! And I’m sad to say my challenge of going palm oil free didn’t last very long. The problem is, unlike the demand for listing food as ‘gluten-free’, or cosmetics as ‘vegan’, or ‘animal cruelty free’, palm oil isn’t something people are widely talking about, or demanding to know more about from brands.
Read more: How Hard is it to be Vegan in Hong Kong?
So, what’s the issue with using palm oil?
Palm oil production is one of the leading causes of deforestation across South East Asia, Latin America and Africa. I was personally shocked to first-hand witness the effects of the palm oil production on a trip to Sumatra, where I drove through miles and miles of burnt rainforest, and learnt about the devastating effects it has on critically endangered species such as the Sumatran orangutang, rhinos and tigers.
“A century ago there were probably more than 230,000 orangutans in total, but the Bornean orangutan is now estimated at about 104,700 based on updated geographic range (endangered) and the Sumatran about 7,500 (critically endangered).”
Globally, it’s also contributing to climate change and pollution.
What can be done to help?
Palm oil is one of the cheapest and most widely used oils in the world. It’s highly unlikely that we could ever completely eliminate it from our everyday lives, and switching to a less efficient crop alternative could actually have a worse environmental impact, as that would mean shifting problems onto another materials. The palm oil industry can be sustainable, but it’s up to us as a consumer to demand companies to make the change.
So should we just avoid palm oil completely? Experts think that “we should still produce and use palm oil – as it is more efficient to produce than alternative vegetable oils – but do more to make sure that the palm oil being bought and sold is sustainable and certified.” And with Asia being one of the biggest consumers, we can definitely help with the steps below to push for this:
1. Check labels – make informed decisions
Look out for RSPO, Rainforest Alliance or other sustainable certification on packaging. You can also check out the WWF Palm Oil Buyers Scorecard here and Ethical Consumers Palm Oil Free list here. Opt for brands committed to sustainability, or support brands that are dedicated to helping the cause, such as LUSH who launched the #SOSsumatra campaign last year. Profits from the LUSH palm oil free shampoo went to the Sumatran Orangutan Society and were used to purchase 50 hectares of oil palm plantation, with a hope to restore the land and wildlife.
Read more: Live Zero: Hong Kong’s First Zero Waste Grocery Store Opens in Sai Ying Pun
2. Make your voice heard
Find out which companies do not use sustainable palm oil and urge them to change. I came across a handy app called Buycott – it allows users to join crowd-source campaigns to get behind causes you care about. Simply scan a barcode when you shop, and you can learn about the product history and make an informed decision about your purchase. What’s really cool about this app is it helps to notify the brand instantly of your purchase decision (every little helps!). If you’re unsure about a product, get in touch with the manufacturer directly.
3. If in doubt – DIY
If you’re unsure about the ingredients in a product, why not look for a natural, homemade alternative? Saynotopalmoil.com even offers a 28-day palm oil free challenge with a full list of DIY product options.
Though I might have failed at the challenge, it meant that I started to consider and question my purchases. Most of the products that contain palm oil are actually processed foods, or even household products that only use palm oil as a foaming agent to appear like it’s cleaning! There are definitely simple changes that can be made in our daily lives that could reduce the demand of these products.
We might not have the power to instantly make the changes needed from large companies worldwide, but we do have the freedom of choice.
We can be held accountable for the effects we’re personally having on the environment. I’m not saying that it’s easy to give up palm oil completely, but it really doesn’t hurt us to stop and take a second to check a label or opt for a sustainable brand where possible, as all of our small decisions amount to a big impact on the world in the long run.
Featured image credited to LUSH Hong Kong, image #1 credited to www.orangutans-sos.org