Q&A On Sustainable Palm Oil

It’s International Orangutan Day on the 19th August.  We are extremely passionate about the palm oil debate, so we asked our close allies at the Sumatran Orangutan Society if they would answer some questions for us on this highly charged debate. Lucy Radford from the Society had this to share with us:

As you work in conservation, what messages would you want to get out there to consumers and activists on the palm oil discussion?

The message the Sumatran Orangutan Society are keen to get out there is that a total boycott of palm oil/products containing palm oil will not help orangutans, forests and communities. If the international market for palm oil disappears, corporations and smallholder farmers could switch to producing an alternative crop to satisfy the global demand for vegetable oils. Oil palms are the most productive oil crop in the world, so switching to another type of crop such as soybean oil would require up to 10 times as much land to produce the same yield. This would lead to more forest loss, not less. The answer is not to demand an end to palm oil production, but to demand an end to deforestation. Supporting companies which use sustainably-sourced palm oil is a way to ‘vote with your wallet’ for the kind of world you want to live in. It sends a message to other companies that consumers don’t want to buy products which lead to forest loss.

The boycotting palm stance is being heard loudly. How can people find good quality information about the sustainable palm stance?

Lots of NGOs and charities have a wealth of information about sustainable palm oil on their websites or even on social media feeds. We have pages about it on our website at https://www.orangutans-sos.org/take-action/learn/palm-oil/. Chester Zoo’s Act for Wildlife pages are also great and very accessible: https://www.chesterzoo.org/what-you-can-do/campaigns/sustainable-palm-oil/

How can consumers find out which brands to buy from that support sustainable palm?

The Act for Wildlife campaign mentioned above has a Sustainable Palm Shopping List which you can download and keep with you when shopping: https://www.chesterzoo.org/app/uploads/sites/3/2019/04/Sustainable-Palm-Oil-Shopping-List-Feb-2019.pdf Alternatively, if you have a smartphone, there’s an app called Giki which allows you to scan barcodes and find out about all the product’s sustainability/ethics metrics, including palm oil.

What’s your response to people who say that sustainable palm efforts are ineffective and not really making a difference?

We want to have an open discourse where people feel comfortable approaching us to ask about these complex and often divisive issues. We know that the pace of change is slow when issues are this big and we understand how it can appear that nothing is happening quickly enough, but we’re always happy to be able to direct people towards the outputs of researchers and organisations who are working on the ground to assess the effectiveness of the RSPO standards and/or support smallholders and companies to become more sustainable in their practices.

What is the way forward for habitat protection?  Do you think stringent and enforced international laws will come into effect as climate change rapidly progresses?

It would be great if stringent laws were put in place to protect the planet, but that alone, even if it happens, won’t be enough. Bottom-up initiatives are vital and often more effective than top-down ones – involving or being led by local and indigenous people, for example, has a hugely positive impact on conservation initiatives. Habitat protection is complicated by socio-political factors and that means there’ll never be one solution to fit all the areas needing protection even within one country, let alone globally, but there are tried and tested ways of making small, holistic projects very successful, and there are many organisations doing this. It all adds up!

Commercial appetite for palm is projected to increase rapidly until 2050… Are there ways for people to safely cut down their consumption of palm or other oils, whilst shopping responsibly where we need to?

All agriculture has an impact, so it’s always worth thinking ‘if I cut down on palm oil/vegetable oil, what will I be replacing it with, and what impact will that have?’ That’s obviously a big and time-consuming question to answer but putting the thought process in place helps you consume things more carefully. It’s also where the sustainable palm shopping list and apps like Giki are invaluable – the researchers behind them have done the legwork so you can be more confident that the palm oil you do consume has been sourced sustainably. So, to put it succinctly – if you decide to cut down, think about what the knock-on effect will be and whether shopping responsibly will be a better option.

Here at Little Soap, we truly believe sustainable palm is vital to support if we want to save the tropical rainforests being ravaged daily.  Deforestation is the real problem, not palm, and by producing palm sustainably and buying from ethical local producers, that means deforestation is more likely to stop, not less. If you’d like to read more check out these links: