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Sustainable Palm Oil: Is It Possible

Posted by on February 22, 2014

Prior to our discussions in class, I honestly had no idea just how controversial this issue really was. I had a vague idea that it was used in many of our products, but not nearly as much as it actually is. Widespread, and seemingly eco-friendly, the high demand has turned the production of this commodity into a serious threat for many species habitats. What really struck me about palm oil is that there does exist the means to produce it sustainably, even at a high volume. It all comes down to the economic benefits versus the environmental downsides. In class we talked about the RSPO certification, but what interested me were the many flaws that were pointed out. Although it seemed like finally there would be a solution and for once the possibility of a sustainable product, multi-million corporations have succeeded in over exploiting places like Indonesia and Malaysia, two of its highest producers. In this article from The Guardian, journalist Oliver Balch goes straight to the security general to discuss the factors that are preventing RSPO certification from spreading faster.


The Roundtable was enacted about a decade ago, so what is making progress so slow? Security general Darrel Webber narrowed it down to roughly three categories: slow pace of change, laggard buyers, and consumer pressure. The image below illustrates the different groups involved with getting sustainable palm oil to take off. Corporations as a rule, do not like to change their products. “Having to pass everything via consensus generally means setting the bar low to keep everyone on board” says Webber of getting corporations to agree on regulations for production. There is also the fact that large scale companies are always looking for more ways to make money so even with the certification they would be hard pressed to stop expanding and clear cutting forests.

Laggard buyers and consumer pressure both influence each other, through supply and demand. “Sustainable palm oil is still not a commodity; it’s a niche” admits Webber; also calling out these buyers as being “lukewarm towards certification”. Consumer demand may not be that important to us here in America, but in the countries closer to the production of oil, it could have a huge impact on sustainably harvested products. With government and citizen support of RSPO palm oil, the demand will cause more large scale companies to follow the rules. Smaller, local companies have already jumped on board, but it is the world wide ones that harm the environment the most.

There is some hope however. As of this year according to an article from ClimateProgress, Kellog brand joines other companies such as Hersheys and Nestle to make a commitment to go deforestation free. Also among them is Wilmar, which is the worlds largest palm oil trader, “control[ing] 45 percent of the global supply in palm oil” (Phillips). It’s slow progress, but what really impacts the pace of change are consumers primarily in India and China. With their support, more big companies will have to provide these kinds of sustainable goods. Hopefully, this is one of the few instances where people realize their responsibility to the environment before its too late.



7 Responses to Sustainable Palm Oil: Is It Possible

  1. cmccartney

    I wondered what made these big name companies take responsibility as well, since like you guys pointed out, they often try to stay away from being associated with any environmental controversy. I think the big names that have taken on this issue are actually doing themselves a favor, since they are listening to world-wide issues, rather than just the US. Palm oil is used extensively outside the US, and that means there is a bigger consumer market and more voices to be heard.

  2. Dr. Szulczewski

    Thank you for sharing this in-depth look at the certification process. It really shows how even solutions have challenges wrapped up in them.

  3. Colleen

    I had no idea how much palm oil was used either. I had no idea it was in processed food! I just thought it was in the dish soap! The article was very interesting! Its a shame that those things are in the way of speeding up the process. I’m sure getting a consensus on these matters are very hard to do. However, it is good to see that big name companies are getting on board. Hopefully their influence will speed up the process.

  4. Shuaib Ahmad

    Getting increased production of RSPO palm oil would certainly help with its sustainability. Though it needs to be made sure that the standards remain high. There has been concern that the USDA Organic label standards aren’t high enough for foods that claim to be organic. Hopefully this won’t with RSPO palm oil. It is encouraging that large corporations have publicly said they are for sustainable palm oil production.

  5. paulaeverett

    It’s good to hear that huge and successful companies such as Hershey’s and Nestle are promising to stop their deforestation. Hopefully more companies will follow in their footsteps. It’s really unfortunate that people care more about the economical benefit than the environmental cost of producing palm oil as it is possible for us to produce it sustainably. Maybe the larger companies will follow when they see that smaller companies who have switched to sustainable palm oil became increasingly popular.

  6. Sarah C.

    I had no idea that palm oil was this controversial either. I’d heard of it before but I never knew that it had so many negative impacts on the environment because it’s advertised in the US as being an alternative to trans fats and can be used as biofuel. I was very shocked to learn that it’s essentially destroying countries like Indonesia and Malaysia. Hopefully companies like Kellog coming forward and making a statement to be deforestation free will cause other companies to do the same and maybe the production of palm oil can slow down.

  7. mkarrs

    It’s great to see that corporations involved in such a widespread issue are choosing to take the environmentally responsible path. I wonder what has made them do so, seeing as how other industries, oil in particular, tend to fight against becoming responsible for the environment and the damage they cause, and instead try and use their influence to change legislation in their favor. I’m curious as to what it would take to get other industries and companies to step up and become responsible in working towards sustainability. Hopefully people start following the example of Kellog and the other large companies changing their practices to save the environment.

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