Palm oil (insert theatrical gasp). We’ve all heard so much about how devastating it is for the rainforests. It accounts for around a third of what the globe consumes in vegetable oils and is our number 1 worldwide used vegetable oil. The reading makes for quite frightening stuff. National Geographic reports that ‘Nearly 150,000 critically endangered Bornean orangutans perished from 1999 to 2015’ and we’ve all had a look at 2018’s controversial Iceland Christmas ad depicting its disastrous effects on our rainforests. Never mind the guilt we should all have consuming the product which is attributed to touting child labour, accelerating climate change and putting pressures on human rights both from an economic, ethical and health perspective. It’s all very big and very scary stuff.
My immediate response on understanding this was, ‘we must vote with our feet’, if we won’t buy it then they’ll have to change it. But it would seem it’s not quite as straight forward as that. The product itself is almost impossible to avoid. In the UK the product’s cheap and plentiful supply chain means manufacturers use it everything from food, to cosmetics to fuel and the labelling isn’t always clear. Would you like some Ammonium lauryl sulphate, BTMS, Ethylene glycol monoesters, Fatty acids, Stearyl alcohol or Zinc Myristate with your lunch? It’s not quite as simple as looking for the word palm or non-descript vegetable oil on the ingredients, unfortunately. It’s a total minefield of chemically labelled and unclear jargon as a consumer so the likelihood of being able to truly understand how much you’re supporting the industry is low.
The product itself is great at what it does. It’s a stable oil that works well in manufacturing, it’s odourless and has a favourable consistency and texture when paired with its low, low cost make it a no-brainer for companies to use. Keeping costs down and providing consistency in their goods. It’s the moral aspect of the undeniable effects its having on the planet and all things that live on it we have to question. Owning up to the fact that our ever growing need to have more and at a good price has led us here. Our demands as consumers are as much to blame as the companies will provide us with what we want. Did we know? In general no, we’ve not realised until recently broadly speaking and boy has our day of reckoning come upon us to think about what we do.
I have read what I could only describe as a hundred articles on this subject in my quest to find the answer or some sort of suggestion to the problem. Palm oil can be made sustainable to a certain extent yes and you can find the all-important RSPO certification ensuring this. That’s a step. Avoiding it altogether believe it or not actually won’t help either. I was incredulous too do not worry. It’s all about the amount of agricultural land needed. The root cause is the consumer demand for oil not palm itself. Wherever it comes from it takes land to produce. Switching to an alternative oil or even an animal fat is not the winning formula.
The true and incredibly hard to get on board with path is actually to consume less. I know. A startling realisation for us all who are fortunate enough to have spending power at our fingertips. We have to waste less and buy only what we need. Look for sustainable certifications, do our research, think about it as much as our current plastic and recycling obsession.
Standing there looking at that groaning trolley or taking that trip just because we can is something we’re going to have to shift our perspective on. Living with less is not something I am in any way au fait with. As I write that I realise how spoilt I am in life. I had only really thought before that I needed to cut back on my frivolous ways to keep the bank happy. That’s not it though, I need to do it for the planet. I’m going to have to learn how to be mindful (furiously digging for my Geri Yoga DVD to get in the zone). It’s a new habit and the one we’ll all need to be voting for our feet with. Stepping away from the items not on that list, understanding how to indulge ourselves without overindulging. This is going to take some work and some wise words to give us the humility to do so.
“In moments of great grief, that’s where you look and immerse yourself. You realise you are not immortal, you are not a god, you are part of the natural world and you come to accept that.” Sir David Attenborough