Slippery Situation: Sustainability Problems with the Palm Oil Industry

The good and bad about palm oil.

Content Tools

Palm oil, a common ingredient in foods and cosmetics, is used in everything from cookies and microwave popcorn to lipstick and soap. Palm oil is also converted to biofuel, an alternative to fossil fuels. Sadly, endangered ecosystems are sacrificed for development of oil palm plantations. 

The Bad News

• Demand for palm oil, grown on sprawling plantations, is the most significant cause of rainforest deforestation in Malaysia and Indonesia, according to Friends of the Earth.

• In Indonesia, the land occupied by palm oil plantations has doubled in 10 years.  This threatens habitat for endangered species, including the orangutan, Sumatran tiger, Asian elephant and Sumatran rhino. The palm oil industry could be a major factor in driving the orangutan to extinction.

• Plantations pollute soil and water with pesticides, and oil mill effluent contributes to soil erosion and river sedimentation.

The Good News

• Other oils—olive, sunflower, canola—can be substituted for palm oil.

• Oil palms can be grown sustainably, without harming the environment or cutting trees. The palms can flourish in rehabilitated agricultural areas or land that’s already been degraded. Also, smaller farms are less disruptive of animal migration patterns.

• Take action by avoiding palm oil in the food and cosmetics you buy. Let your supermarket or retailer know about your boycott.

• Support companies that are part of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil Production, cofounded by the World Wildlife Fund. Members include IKEA, Johnson & Johnson, Nestlé, The Body Shop and Unilever.