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Palm oil and the challenge of sustainability

Over the last few years, the spotlight has been shone on palm oil and the effect that producing it has on our planet. Palm oil is everywhere, it’s almost harder to find products that don’t contain it in our supermarkets as those that do! Even with more awareness in recent years, it’s still surprising to find that it is in so many products from shampoo and toothpaste, to pizza and cosmetics. But why is it used so widely, and is it possible to produce palm oil sustainably? Here at the Beagle Button we’ve dug out the facts for you.

Why is palm oil used so much?

Palm oil is an incredibly versatile substance that makes it useful for almost every consumer product category. It has no odour or colour, has a high level of stability at high temperatures and a long shelf life. Compared to other oils, it is a very efficient crop to grow, with comparatively low levels of land use, resulting in millions of smallholder farmers worldwide relying on it for their livelihoods.

This has of course resulted in high availability of palm oil on the market and the use of it in many of our favourite brands, further continuing the demand, and so the cycle continues!

So why is it so bad?

Palm oil is produced in 42 countries worldwide, but the majority comes from Malaysia and Indonesia. Here, forests are cleared on a vast scale to provide land for palm plantations, which has a whole host of knock on effects on the fight against climate change. The swampy, peat-rich lands of Indonesia’s forests are a huge carbon store, and when the land is cleared and the peat drained, massive amounts of carbon dioxide are released. With the trees gone, there are also gaping holes left in the forests we need to process the carbon dioxide!

With their natural habitat gone, rhinos, orangutans and other animals are being threatened with extinction. Local people can be forced from their homes to clear further land and labour practices are often not regulated, with child labour common.

Is there a sustainable option?

There is a lot of debate around whether there can be a sustainable way to produce palm oil. A lot of research has shown that banning palm oil completely isn’t a good idea; the production of other oils that would take its place would require even more land and therefore cause even higher levels of deforestation.

There has been some progress in recent years, with the formation of the Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil, bringing together producers, some of the biggest brands that rely on the supply of palm oil and other involved parties. The RSPO has created a certification for sustainable palm oil which demands that companies meet a set of environmental and social criteria to reduce the negative impact of palm oil production on the planet and local communities.

However there are many out there who say that this is not enough. Some claim that compliance with the criteria is not regulated enough, and criticise the fact that the RSPO now work with the same producers who previously tore down the rainforests. In response, in a National Geographic article, Darrel Webber, CEO of RSPO Webber, responds with a comparison to St. Paul on the road to Damascus - “Do you forgive a huge sinner because that person could be your greatest missionary? Or do we keep all the sinners out, and then what change would we have?”

It seems unlikely that the demand for palm oil will reduce but therefore vital to find ways that it can be produced sustainably. It is a difficult balance to strike when smallholder farmers all over the world are provided with income through farming palm oil. The RSPO are working with these farmers to support them in achieving sustainable certification and increase the amount of palm oil that they can produce sustainably on their lands. They are also encouraging consumer brands to join their alliance and ensure that they source their palm oil from sustainable sources.

What can we do?

We have buying power, and we can choose where we spend our money. Look for the RSPO Sustainable Palm Oil certification on products that you buy, and check out the WWF Palm Oil Buyers Scorecard to see how retailers are fairing in their commitment to sustainable sourcing.

Remember that palm oil could be used even in products you don’t expect, and so challenge yourself to check all of the products that you buy, and make alternative choices if needed. You could also contact your usual brands to challenge them on this, if you feel that there is more that could be done!

Here at Beagle we aim to promote products that are palm oil free, whilst ensuring that the palm oil hasn’t been replaced by a worse alternative. In some cases, we will promote products that use verified sustainable palm oil.

Who are we again?

The Beagle Button is designed to make switching to a more sustainable, eco-friendly lifestyle easier. From fashion to homeware to foods, by becoming a user we’ll notify you whenever we find a “better” option for the product you’re looking at. Our recommendation can be personalised to match your preferences, such as being vegan, sustainable, animal friendly or plastic free. However, one thing all recommendations have in common is that they’re products we thoroughly believe in. We love each product that we recommend, and we are certain you’ll love them too.

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