Palm oil

updated May 2013


Taking palm oil off the shelf


Some companies are responding to the palm oil crisis by banning it altogether says Simon Birch.


Who’d have thought that a simple plant could cause so much trouble? The industrial-scale growing of the oil palm plant is now one of the key drivers for deforestation right across south east Asia and now Africa. This is something which continues to have disastrous consequences for both wildlife and local indigenous people.

Environmental groups around the world have responded to this mounting catastrophe by launching actions against palm oil with the Ethical Consumer and Rainforest Foundation initiative being the latest in a long line of consumer-driven campaigns against the oil palm.

The Ethical Consumer and Rainforest Foundation palm oil campaign gives a better rating to companies reducing and even eliminating palm oil use altogether. And some of the best companies have already stepped up to the mark.


Chocolate and oatcakes

“Our chocolate is made with only the purest, organic ingredients and without the use of palm oil,” says the founder of Booja Booja chocolate company Colin Mace. “In this way we get a top quality ingredient while safeguarding the world’s precious natural resources and both these things are really important to us.”

Divine, the UK’s leading Fairtrade chocolate company, has also banned palm oil as Charlotte Borger from Divine explains: “We avoid an ingredient that has serious environmental impact implications, but also an ingredient which is becoming worryingly pervasive in so many of the things we eat everyday.”

And it’s not just chocolate companies who are turning their backs on palm oil. Paterson Scottish oatcakes took the decision to stop using palm oil back in 2002 and replaced it with olive oil. Despite the emergence of efforts to produce sustainable palm oil, Paterson’s believe that the move to make palm oil truly sustainable was taking too long. “Time is of the essence so we have removed palm oil completely from our oatcake range,” said a Paterson’s spokesperson.

With a growing number of companies now banning the use of palm oil, market analysts believe that the move towards palm oil-free foods and ingredients could be an emerging trend across Europe. This will be reinforced when new European rules requiring palm oil to be identified in ingredients labelling come into force in 2014.

According to market analysts Mintel in 2011 there were 72 new products in Europe that had ‘no palm oil’ claims compared with just 16 in 2010. The companies involved are some of the biggest in the food industry including Findus and PepsiCo.


Practical difficulties

But one of the difficulties facing companies wanting to drop palm oil is that finding alternatives can be far from straightforward as Hilary Jones from Lush cosmetics explains:“We took the decision to stop using palm oil as early as 2005 because of the impact that palm oil was having on orang utans. However it was only in 2007 after we’d finally come up with a palm oil-free formulation for our soap that that we were able to stop using it.”

Despite encountering many problems in trying to find a substitute for palm oil which is a standard ingredient in the soap industry, Lush weren’t prepared to use sustainable palm oil certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).

“Nothing that the RSPO talks about is sustainable. We believe it is nothing more than greenwash,” says Jones. “The only thing that is sustainable is if we cut our consumption of palm oil so as a company that’s what we decided to do and move to rapeseed oil, something that’s easier to grow.”

Jones now believes that consumer action is crucial in getting other companies to stop using palm oil. “If consumers aren’t putting pressure on companies, then companies do nothing. It’s only when their customers start giving them grief that they start making changes.”


Visit the campaign pages.


See our palm oil-free list.