It is an extremely reasonable statement to make that the Earth is all we have. Studying Geography at university, I am reminded constantly about the fragility of this planet through copious lectures that document the enormous pressure that humans are putting on the resources of our world and how close we are to a very real, catastrophic collapse. I leave every one of these lectures feeling stressed because of the sheer size of the problem, and how few people seem to want to do anything about it.
Many people, even people on my course, seem complacent, unfazed and unwilling to make any changes to their lifestyle or be proactive at all about protecting the environment and tackling climate change. Getting people to actually care about their planet seems much harder than it should be, so I thought that by supplying information about some acute issues currently harming our environment, I could at least try to get people (including you) thinking and inspire them (you) to take action.
The first time I ever heard about palm oil was when I learnt about the exploitation of Indonesia’s rainforests as a case study at AS Level. The sheer amount of destruction, deforestation and violation of human rights that goes on there stuck with me, and three years later, the problem is as prominent as ever.
Palm oil is an edible vegetable oil extracted from palm fruit grown from the African oil palm tree. It can be found in over 50% of the packaged products sold in supermarkets worldwide, including food like chocolate, ice cream, bread and margarine, most cosmetics and moisturisers, shampoo, soap and toothpaste. It is often disguised in products under names like vegetable oil or vegetable fat, and is used to make these things ‘creamier’ amongst other desirable properties like being solid at room temperature (I don’t think liquid lipstick would sell too well).
The WWF have made a really snazzy visual graphic that explains the problem and some solutions, check that out here.
Obviously these products are hard to avoid, especially if anyone’s eaten as much chocolate as I have over this Easter weekend. The world would be a much smellier place if no one used soap or shampoo or toothpaste (coincidentally, I’ve just got back from a dentist appointment, how exciting!). The problem isn’t really in the use of palm oil, but in the unsustainable and unethical production of it.
This brings me to Indonesia. Indonesia has the third largest area of tropical rainforest on Earth, but that is rapidly diminishing with estimations of over a million hectares being destroyed annually due to illegal logging, mining and predominantly, clearance to make room for agriculture like oil palm tree plantations. Often, peat forests are cleared through fires which are largely uncontrollable and completely destroy ecosystems and habitat. These activities mean that Indonesia actually has the highest levels of greenhouse gas emissions in the entire world- more than the choking factories of the developing world and the astonishing amount of heating, electricity and gas used in the USA. This accelerates climate change, which is a bad thing for everyone. Even though there are 20 million hectares of abandoned agricultural land that could be used for more plantations, primary forest continues to be destroyed at an alarming rate.
Feel free to read more about that here.
Of course, the relentless destruction of the environment leads to the extinction of its endemic species. If you’re a fan of orangutans, tigers, rhinos and pygmy elephants (yes, there is such a thing! Apparently they grow to around 2.5 metres high and are probably the best thing ever) – then get ready to say goodbye to these precious four-legged friends. Today, there are less than 400 Sumatran tigers left on Earth. Over 90% of the orangutans habitat has been destroyed, leaving them critically endangered. Of the Sumatran and Javan rhinos, less than 100 of each species remain.
This may well mean nothing to you, but if that is the case, then you may want to think about something. Humans are the only species on Earth that have caused such an unnatural imbalance between themselves and the environment. Like any imbalance found in nature, a species that reaches a peak population will, inevitably, collapse, and it is inconceivable that we will be able to continue erasing our environment for much longer without similar consequences. The extinction of these animals is simply a taste of what is to come as our natural world disappears before our eyes, and if you don’t want Wall-E to happen before we have the technology to host our entire global population on a cosy, able-to-function-for-700-years space station, then it is time to do something about it.
The solution (only to the palm oil crisis, not the end of the world)
The good news is that there is a solution, as there IS such a thing as sustainable palm oil. The RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) sets standards for manufacturers, buyers and retailers to certify whether their palm oil is sustainable. The Body Shop Australia states on their website that they use sustainable palm oil from Papua New Guinea, and encourage their customers to buy RSPO certified products from other shops too. Have a look here.
What doesn’t make sense however, is that only 52% of the RSPO certified sustainable palm oil was sold in 2012. Even though the option is readily available for companies to go sustainable, many companies just haven’t bothered.
This is where you can help. Both the WWF and the Rainforest Foundation have compiled ‘scorecards’ for companies and products according to their palm oil sources. The best thing that we can do as consumers is choose the most sustainable products. Here are a few examples.
The Good Guys
- Divine – an obvious contender; fair trade, sustainable, ethical, if this chocolate were a person they would definitely be an angel/saint.
- Booja Booja – never heard of it, but it’s good. Buy it!
- Sainsbury’s chocolate – yes, it’s true, Sainsbury’s own 30p chocolate bars are made using sustainable palm oil. Rejoice, Easter is saved.
- Lindt – The bunnies are sustainable! Animals looking out for each other everywhere
The Bad Guys
- Guylian – I could cry because these are my favourite chocolates, but alas, their score is a shocking and almost unbelievable -1. I mean, how do you even get a minus? They are the only ones with a minus. No more guylians please.
- Thorntons – Overpriced and saturated in rainforest ploughing palm oil, don’t do it.
- Kinder – Shattering our childhoods, I know, but Kinder products scored a pathetic 1/20 for ethical palm oil. To be fair, the surprises were never worth it.
- Ferrero Rocher
- Essential Care Natural Make-up
- The Body Shop – Surprisingly their score is only 11, but only Essential Care scored a 20 in this category.
- Neal’s Yard Remedies Organic Make-up
- Max Factor
Doesn’t look good does it.
In biscuits; McVities, Waitrose biscuits and Fox’s come out on top, while Oreos, Ritz and Asda biscuits continue to fund habitat destruction. Take a look at the full lists here.
Together we have an enormous consumer power to make the right choice about the food that we eat and the products that we use. Though it is disguised on the packaging, it does not take too much research to find out who is working towards a better future for our planet, and who only has profit in mind. You can decide to make this change now. For the companies that do not have both our and Mother Nature’s happiness at their heart, we can demand, encourage and invoke change in the work that they do.
The more vocal we are about this problem, the more likely it is to change. Talk about it, raise awareness, tweet, blog about it, sign petitions. We are the buyers, so we have the power to make a difference.
Lots of love, Megsy x