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  • Kasturi Goswami

Reading Labels-Is The Palm Oil In Our Food Or Deodorant Or Shampoo Certified As Sustainable?

Conscious consumption is a responsible decision and an escalating forethought amongst the current masses. The supermarket aisles or convenience stores shelves a variety spread of products. It is the duty of the consumers to educate themselves on the constituents and the impact on their health as well as the aftermath on the environment.

An estimated 50-60% of the food products and 70% of the beauty and personal care products found in the market constitute a highly resourceful component or one of its derivatives. It has also known used in animal food and as fuel when refined into biodiesel.

Palm oil!

It's Everywhere We Turn Our Heads To!

The high-yielding, tropical oil palm tree is one of the most versatile crops mass cultivated. It meets 35% of the global vegetable oil demand in just 10% of the land area allocated to oil crops. Two types of oil are derived from the oil palm viz.

  • crude palm oil - squeezed from the fleshy fruit.

  • palm kernel oil - from the crushed kernel, or the stone in the middle of the fruit.

palm oil, palm kernels
Palm Kernels

Native to West Africa, the oil palm tree was brought to South-East Asia about a century ago. What is most interesting is that this was initially meant to be an ornamental plant. Africans used the Oil Palm tree extensively to produce medicine to soothe headaches, relieve rheumatic pain, heal wounds and skin infections, and negate poison. Today, palm oil extracted is in high demand worldwide. Indonesia and Malaysia feed over 85% of the global palm oil demand, with 42 other countries meeting the remnant. The global need is expected to grow at 1.7% per year until 2050.

Palm oil being a highly functional crop for its wide-ranging properties is multi-faceted in usage. It is:

  • edible, odorless, colorless, and stable at high temperatures; thus ideal for cooking. It remains semi-solid at room temperature, hence used as processed oils and fats.

  • an occlusive agent and helps increase moisture levels in the skin by providing a physical barrier to epidermal water loss. It acts as an emollient and softens and smoothes skin.

  • nourishing hence softens hair and reduces hair loss and greying.

In addition to the above, palm oil is resistant to oxidation thereby imparting longer shelf lives to products, and is cheaper than other alternatives.

Three-quarters of the total palm oil produced is used for food. The beauty and personal care industry uses a minor percentage of the produce, but extensively. Hence, its dominance appears more pronounced in the beauty industry than in the food scene.

palm tree plantation
Palm Oil - It's Trouble, They Say!

The extensive demand for palm oil has imposed the need for more plantation land. An analysis carried out by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) states that rainforest deforestation due to palm oil plantation endangers at least 193 threatened species on the IUCN Red List and reduces the diversity and abundance of native species. It is estimated that further palm expansion could affect 54% of all threatened mammals and 64% of all threatened birds globally. The conversion of carbon-rich peat soils increases the release of greenhouse gases and aggravates climate change.

Red List, IUCN
Pic: IUCN official website

To boot the negative environmental and biodiversity impacts, certain moral and ethical issues bear further notice. Detailed investigations carried out by the Associated Press (AP) News on Malaysian and Indonesian palm oil plantations, proved that the employer-employee relation cycle is face-deep into widespread misuse of power and exploitation.

  • At first, AP interviewed more than 130 (current and former) workers of about 20 palm oil companies on facts regarding human trafficking and bonded labor.

  • Secondly, they interviewed more than 30 women and girls from at least 12 companies on facts regarding the brutal treatment of women workers.

Both reports indicated that they have all faced or witnessed inhumane treatment and abuses such as human trafficking, outright slavery, child labor, and sexual exploitation in the hands of their bosses.

The Definite Positive-Why It Matters And How To Keep It Relevant?

Palm plantations are spread across Asia, Africa, and Latin America. This has created extensive employment opportunities helping alleviate dire poverty. It is a national economy driver. Palm oil has a wide range of applications (from food to cosmetics to detergents and personal care) as such, a major hit amongst manufacturers and retailers. Thus, replacement is not a solution. We need a long-lasting approach viz. sustainable production. Both the giants IUCN and WWF work independently on facing the Palm Oil situation in their own basic approaches.

The main objective of IUCN is to conserve nature and throttle the world towards sustainable development. The IUCN Species Survival Commission (SSC) in 2016 formally established the Oil Palm Task Force (OPTF). The work of OPTF is to provide information and guide the IUCN about its policies and strategies that affect or are affected by palm oil. As part of restoration initiatives, the IUCN has worked in places like Myanmar, towards decreasing the impact of heavy deforestation done to clear land for palm oil plantations.

The WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature) Palm Oil Buyers Scorecard benchmarks companies (manufacturers, food service providers, and retailers) against their promised commitments and actions in favor of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO)'s Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO). The RSPO was formed in 2004 aiming to curb the growing detrimental impact of the palm oil production chain with a view to developing a set of environmental and social criteria that companies need to comply with to produce CSPO. The RSPO dictates seven principles (as reviewed in 2018) that are to be abided by for certification. They are:

  • Principle 1. Behave ethically and transparently

  • Principle 2. Operate legally and respect rights

  • Principle 3. Optimize productivity, efficiency, positive impacts, and resilience

  • Principle 4. Respect the community and human rights and deliver benefits

  • Principle 5. Support smallholder inclusion

  • Principle 6. Respect workers’ rights and conditions

  • Principle 7. Protect, conserve and enhance ecosystems and the environ­ment

Pic: RSPO official website

Moreover, the Palm Oil-Free Certification is something to look out for. The International Palm Oil Free Certification Trademark Programme (POFCAP) was initially launched in Australia in late 2017. It is the World's first-ever palm oil-free certification trademark, now global and approved to certify brands in 20 countries including India. The inspiration behind the logo was a baby orangutan, Jabrick, a victim of deforestation herself.

Pic: International Palm Oil Free Certification Trademark official website

Key Challenges - Shift To Sustainable Palm Oil

In 2020, WWF made a collective analysis of case studies on 34 companies (9 retailers and 25 manufacturers; headquartered in Europe, North America, and Asia) with scores of 9 and higher (out of a total of 22) on the palm oil buyers scorecard detailing their key achievements, challenges and future plans. The report indicated that the companies faced basic challenges while:

  • accessing RSPO CSPO, for demand was high.

  • tracing back supply chains.

  • convincing their suppliers to transition to sustainable palm oil.

Despite the difficulties, the companies had made varied approaches to addressing those challenges.

  • 79% raised awareness and in-depth engagement with suppliers.

  • 59% placed sustainability requirements for their suppliers.

  • 71% invested in on-ground projects in palm-producing landscapes.

  • 62% participated in action-oriented sustainability platforms and multistakeholder collaborations.

In the end, a 94% majority committed to attaining or maintaining 100% sourcing of RSPO CSPO.

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I'm A Meagre Consumer, What Can I Possibly Do!

As Indian consumers, we ought to be more concerned about the palm oil situation for we are the largest importer of the foresaid globally.

Palm oil has a high content of saturated fats, which increases the chances of high cholesterol, cardiovascular diseases, and type 2 diabetes. As consumers health consciousness is an acquired skill. We learn to distinguish what's healthy for us only through the repeated study of our body's metabolism and nutrition levels. However, accessing the risk factor, we can safely say that a low to no palm oil food lifestyle is a definite plus. However, its vast array of properties makes it a very substantial component in the beauty and personal care industry. Thus, in such cases, we can opt for products containing sustainable palm oil.

If we as consumers educate ourselves and make small deliberate decisions we can step up to the challenge. All those minor individual changes in cosmetics, food, and personal care items in our monthly shopping list will create a roundabout impact huge enough to make us see the difference we have made as a whole.

To get an idea of palm oil derivatives used in products, take a look at this elaborate catalog. Palm oil is often hidden amid a list of scientific names on labels. So next time, let us all make an effort to read labels and opt for palm oil-free or certified sustainable palm oil products.

Supermarket, Old Lady
Make Deliberate Decisions! Sounds Hard, But In Reality, Isn't. Let Us All Read Labels.


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  1. 'Palm oil and biodiversity' | IUCN | Available at:

  2. 'Palm oil labor abuses linked to world’s top brands, banks' | AP News | Margie Mason, Robin McDowell | 24th September 2020 | Available at:

  3. 'Rape, abuses in palm oil fields linked to top beauty brands' | AP News | Margie Mason, Robin McDowell | 18th November 2020 | Available at:

  4. 'Reversing forest degradation and deforestation, and restoring forested landscapes through local multi-stakeholder management in Myanmar.' | IUCN | Available at:

  5. 'Guidance for the 2018 RSPO Principles and criteria metrics template' | RSPO | Pg 6 | Available at:

  6. 'Palm Oil-Free Certification Trademark Comes To India' | Pure & Eco India | Available at:

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