Sumatran Tiger

Good palm oil is possible. Believe me.

From the fruit and seeds of the oil palm tree, and straight into your soap, detergent, makeup, biscuits, and perhaps even your biofuel – palm oil is everywhere. It's cheaper to grow than many of its alternatives, takes up less land, and has a longer shelf life, so it’s little wonder some of your favourite brands are using it on an ever-growing scale. 

But as you may very well be aware, it’s not a benign commodity. What with forest destruction, habitat loss, land disputes, human rights violations and epic forest fires: palm oil has more than just a reputation problem. It’s the largest driver of deforestation in Indonesia, and its growth is tied to some of Southeast Asia’s worst environmental crimes – just ask our friends in Singapore! It is now an increasing threat in other regions, such as Africa, seen as the new frontier for palm oil industry. 

Just a couple of weeks ago, we exposed the role of the world’s largest palm oil trader, Wilmar International, in this destruction. This Singapore-based company sits at the centre of a global web of corporations – including the companies that make products such as Oreos, Clearasil and Head & Shoulders shampoo – making us all unwitting accomplices in this destruction.

But for all its problems, boycotting palm oil is not a solution.

Because palm oil is everywhere. No biscuit-munching, soap-using, clean-clothed urbanite could really avoid using palm oil and its derivatives. It’s also a critical part of the Indonesian economy, providing crucial income to rural communities and pumping money into this burgeoning country.

But let’s face it, palm oil has an image problem rooted in the fact that in many cases it is not being produced responsibly. The answer certainly doesn’t rest with the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), which despite having “sustainable” in its name, cannot guarantee to break the link between palm oil and forest destruction. And the answer is not to boycott a commodity that is crucial to Indonesia, and practically unavoidable in the products we consume.  

So, what do we do about it?

Here are three things that would make a good start: 

1. Demand companies implement a "No Deforestation" policy.

Greenpeace envisions palm oil production by local communities and industrial players that protects forests, follows responsible agricultural practices while contributing to economic development and respects the social, economic and cultural rights of local communities. It’s not some hippie ideal. It can be done, and indeed, it is being done. Consumer companies, traders and palm oil producers need to implement a "No Deforestation" policy to ensure that the palm oil in their supply chains is free from forest destruction, land conflict and human rights violations.

2. Spread the word that good palm oil exists.

Greenpeace believes that palm oil can be produced responsibly. Palm oil production has been part of the livelihoods of local communities in Asia and Africa for decades, and can contribute both to economic development, while protecting forests and other ecosystems. An example of this is the Dosan village on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. Palm oil producers, like the members of the Palm Oil Innovation Group, have shown that there is a business case for palm oil production that does not lead to forest destruction or violates the rights of local communities. 

3. Sign up. Now.

This is not the last you’ll hear from us. We have a long way to go until we transform the palm oil industry and end forest destruction. Palm oil can – and must - make a genuine contribution to the development of emerging economies like Indonesia, rather than destroying the future of its people, its wildlife and the global climate on which we all depend. Head here to sign up to the global movement.

Areeba Hamid is a Forest Campaigner with Greenpeace International

Image: A Sumatran tiger is pictured at the Taman safari Park. In Indonesia, forest destruction for palm oil is pushing Sumatran tigers to the edge of extinction, with as few as 400 left in the wild. Companies must commit to zero deforestation and end their role in tiger habitat loss. © Paul Hilton / Greenpeace