This Product is Everywhere

Two weeks ago we said we’d help you consume responsibly. So, as promised, we’re going to talk about palm oil. Yup. Palm oil.

It’s in everything pictured above. (Thanks World Wildlife Foundation for the image 👊)

Most of you reading this probably buy and use stuff like shampoo, hand soap, frozen pizza and cosmetics on the regs. Well, these products, and about half of the average supermarket, contain palm oil. This type of vegetable oil is cheap to make and, consequently, the process of making it is wounding our planet and its people a little too much for comfort.

A little palm oil 101

Does palm oil really come from palm trees? Yes, but not the Hollywood Boulevard kind.

Palm oil comes from the palm fruit which grows on the oil palm tree. The latter is a tree (related to the palm tree we’re most familiar with) that can reach up to 20m (66 ft) in height and thrives in areas full of heat and abundant rain — basically, rain forests.

About 12 million hectares across the planet are dedicated to growing the oil palm tree. For comparison, the area of the average football/soccer field is slightly smaller that 1 hectare. And to put a country to the face of palm oil, know that combined, Malaysia and Indonesia are the sources of 85% of the world’s palm oil production.

When covering the dark side of the palm oil industry, most attention is drawn to the wildlife devastation that comes in the wake of destroying the natural habitats for fellow earthlings like elephants, tigers, orangutans, and the countless local plants and trees making up the rich, diverse ecosystem.

Undoubtedly, the images of charred orangutan corpses (due to the scorching of the land to make room for new plantations) are very hard to be unseen. But what is as sad, and not as widely discussed, is the human cost of this $44B global machine.

Spoiler alert: the palm oil industry is rife with human-rights abuse.

Child labour, human trafficking and terribly low wages are only the tip of the iceberg. According to a 2013 Bloomberg Businessweek report, windowless barracks, limited access to clean water and the inability to leave the plantations for up to two years (length of “employment contract”), make up the daily living situations of the human beings “working” to bring us low-costing soaps, shampoos and toothpaste.

Kinda makes us feel bad (almost guilty for not knowing) — we know. But it’s important for all of us to be aware and informed. That’s why we’re here ✌🏽

Brace yourself…

We’re going to go a little further down the rabbit hole.

The working conditions are a few degrees away from pure evil. The Businessweek report mentions that not only are workers threatened to have the wages cut if they don’t accomplish their tasks (like spreading 20 bags of 50kg each of fertilizer a day), but they’re also forced to spray the plantations with a herbicide that is banned in over 30 countries (banned because it’s been linked to kidney and liver damage, as well as causing respiratory difficulties.)

Sadly, escape from this living hell is close to impossible. When found by search parties (the plantation’s security forces), the brave souls who have attempted to fleet are generally beaten in front of others so as to set the tone. No one is free to leave.

Hard to see the bright side of this massive problem…

So why not just stop using palm oil?

Great question fellow reader!

Problem is, the oil palm tree is a very effective plant and its fruit is, well… very fruitful. To produce another type of vegetable oil (ex: sunflower) would require up to four times the amount of land. And because the alternatives would require more space (and the world is sort of running out of that), it’s very complicated for big industry to change.

Please tell us there’s hope.

Yes. Yes there is.

Since 2002, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), has been working hard to bring all the various stakeholders of the palm oil industry together to the table to get their sh*t figured out.

The goal of the RSPO is to assemble hundreds of groups with different agendas (like growers of oil palm and NGOs) in order to reach a consensus on big decisions. Such decision-making includes: fair working conditions and compensation, the protection of native people’s lands, as well as the guarantee to not clear primary rainforests teeming with wildlife (including both plants and animals.)

Is this roundtable achieving anything?

Again with the great question dear reader. (You’re on fire.)

Some pretty legit things are actually being done. To date, they’ve helped certify about 2.8M hectares of the world’s palm oil production. Certification means those lands are safe from most of the terrible things we mentioned a few paragraphs up.

Hold on. If you’ve been reading carefully, you’d recall the 12M hectares total. That means there are 9M evil football fields out there. What can we do about them?

We bring change via our wallets. That’s what.

As consumers, we have big power. More than we realize. If you don’t want to support the palm industry’s status quo, then — until all products made with palm oil have the RSPO certification — don’t buy anything with the following ingredients:

This list was compiled by the World Wildlife Foundation, so it’s pretty darn reliable 🐼

We made this list an image so that you can download and save it on your phone. Or simply screenshot this right now.

Next time you’re at the store, you can take back control of where your dollars go.

Know that there are dozens of different names for the derivatives of palm oil. A good guideline is knowing that anything including “palm–something” most likely includes palm oil. This list above has quite a few palm — — words, so you get the picture.

Be prepared to have a little patience though. We took this list to our local (awesome) health food store and were quite shocked that behind all the colourful, pretty marketing, the majority of what looks like, safe, healthy, organic products, in fact had these ingredients. None of which had the RSPO logo. Ugh!

What we do know is that, with a little effort in supporting alternative products, we can force big industry to change.

In this case, as with many, change will have to come from below. Let’s be the seeds of change 🌱

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