Palm Oil

Image: Beauty cover 


Last updated: February 2017



Problem with Palm Oil


Palm oil and palm oil derivatives have become an important component in many products. In particular, it is used for its viscosity and as a skin conditioning agent.


Palm oil free companies: Odylique, Caurnie, Honesty, Earth Friendly Products and Pure Nuff Stuff were the only companies in our guides to cosmetics and toiletries to have a policy of not using palm oil.

Image: Palm Oil


What’s the problem?

Palm oil is widely used in bodycare products. Many use palm oil derivatives, which can go under 200 or more different names. Even products using straight palm oil escape the EU law that requires it to be labelled, as that only applies to food products. The widespread use of palm oil and derivative ingredients is a concern because it is devastating rainforests, as well as being linked to human rights abuses.

In 2004, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil was established to develop and implement environmental and social standards for the industry. Many companies now use RSPO-certified palm oil, but you can’t always tell from a product label. And because of the various RSPO certifications possible, and the many different palm oil ingredients, it can be quite confusing for the consumer.

In addition, the RSPO has been criticised for being weak ever since it began, not least in a November 2016 report by Amnesty, ‘The Great Palm Oil Scandal’.[1]


Labour abuse behind big brand names

Amnesty’s report focused on suppliers to Wilmar, the world’s largest processor and merchandiser of palm oil, and exposed systematic human rights abuses. It found that even some of the biggest brands, including Colgate, who seemed to be doing the most to improve their palm oil supply chains, were customers of Wilmar.

Amnesty found evidence of forced and child labour, and dangerous working practises. Much of this was caused by workers struggling to meet the unrealistic targets set by their employers. Workers on all plantations investigated said they got help to meet targets, often from their children, in an effort to avoid penalties which they could not afford.

Amnesty documented cases of people working 12 hours a day, seven days a week. Dangerous pesticides and fertilisers, which Wilmar had committed to phase out, were still being used, and poor equipment led to injuries. Gender discrimination was also found, with the majority of women employed on casual, rather than permanent, contracts.

All the suppliers investigated were members of the RSPO. The report concluded that “the RSPO is acting as a shield which deflects greater scrutiny”, and that “RSPO and certification assessments cannot and should not be used as proof of compliance with workers’ human rights”. As a result, Ethical Consumer felt it had to factor this in to the way we rate companies.



How we rate companies on Palm Oil 

The mass production of palm oil is devastating the world's rainforests as well as being linked to human rights abuses and we felt that we needed to reflect this more fully in the rankings tables in our product guides.

Therefore we have improved our rankings to include a new palm oil cateogory using a best, middle and worst rating system.


Table: Palm Oil Cateogory


We have been ranking company performance on palm oil for over 15 years now. Until now companies have picked up marks in three categories for this issue (Habitats, Climate Change and Human Rights) and we feel that this has become a clumsy way of representing what is now a key concern for many ethical consumers.

Companies able to demonstrate a fully certified supply chain for all palm ingredients used by the whole company group, and who also declare suppliers and volumes will receive a best rating. Companies that are palm oil free - using neither palm oil (CPO), palm kernel oil (PKO) nor palm derivatives - will also receive a best rating. 

Ethical Consumer will use information sourced from companies' Corporate Social Responsibility communications, responses to our questionnaires and/or their latest Annual Communication on Progress (ACOP) to the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).

See our individual beauty product guides for more information. 







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