Is Sustainable Palm Oil Ethical – or Just Greenwashing?

Unfortunately, the answer isn’t simple.

Aerial view of palm oil plantation in Asia
Credit: Nelza Jamal/Flickr

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Palm oil is used in everything from ice cream and noodles to laundry detergent and baby formula. It’s one of the most ubiquitous ingredients in the supermarket — and one of the most controversial. For decades, palm oil producers have been accused of unfair labor practices and rampant environmental destruction. There’s since been a movement to switch over to “sustainable” palm oil — but is sustainable palm oil actually ethical?

What Is Palm Oil, and Which Products Contain It?

Palm oil comes from the fruit of oil palm trees, which can only grow in tropical climates. Although over 40 countries have palm oil industries, 85 percent of palm oil is produced in Indonesia and Malaysia.

Despite its unassuming name, palm oil is an extraordinarily common ingredient that’s found in countless consumer products. Bread, nuts, ice cream, margarine, cereal, cookies, cooking oil and candy are some of the foods that contain palm oil; it can also be found in soap, fuel, cosmetics, candles and some other non-food products. Around half of all packaged products in supermarkets contain palm oil, according to the World Wildlife Federation.

It can be difficult to know whether an individual product has palm oil in it, as ingredient labels often refer to it and its derivatives by other names: Glyceryl stearate, elaeis guineensis, PKO, PHPKO, sodium lauryl sulphate and hydrated palm glycerides are all other terms for palm oil or, conversely, terms for ingredients that themselves include palm oil.

Why Palm Oil Is Used in So Many Products

Before getting into the problems with palm oil, it’s important to note why it’s such a popular product in the first place.

To begin with, palm oil trees are incredibly efficient in terms of land use. They’re the highest-yielding oil crop by a wide margin, according to the WWF, requiring much less land to grow than alternative sources of vegetable oil. They’re also high in saturated fats, which makes them able to withstand extreme heat and oxidation better than most oil crops.

As a finished product, palm oil takes a long time to spoil, has no odor or flavor and is almost completely free of trans fats. All of these qualities make it a very attractive and versatile ingredient.

Ethical Problems With Palm Oil

Unfortunately, the ubiquity of palm oil has come at a steep cost to the environment, animals and humans.


While palm oil production uses less land than many other oils, palm oil is still the source of a staggering amount of deforestation. Between 2001 and 2019, 38,000 square miles of Indonesian forests were destroyed to make way for palm oil trees. On the island of Borneo, which is divided between Malaysia and Indonesia (the country of Brunei is also located on Borneo, but only occupies one percent of its land), palm oil was responsible for almost 40 percent of deforestation between 2000 and 2018.

Deforestation has a number of disastrous consequences. It makes the fight against global warming much more difficult, as forests sequester enormous amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Destroying rainforests also wreaks havoc on local animal populations, as doing so often amounts to a full-scale destruction of their natural habitats and resources.

Species Endangerment

Though countless species have been impacted by deforestation around the world, orangutans in particular have been hit very hard by the palm oil industry’s deforestation: between 1999 and 2015, half of the Bornean orangutan population was affected by land clearance projects, many of which were carried out to make way for palm oil plantations, and 100,000 died. And they’re not the only ones. According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, 193 species are either endangered or threatened by the palm oil industry.

Exploitative Labor

Finally, there’s the human cost. An extensive AP investigation in 2020 found that the palm oil industry regularly engages in human trafficking, and uses child labor and slave labor to populate its workforce. Multiple reports have found that rape and sexual assault is common on palm oil plantations, and a separate investigation by a coalition of NGOs found that palm oil workers in Indonesia were regularly paid less than minimum wage, exposed to toxic chemicals and denied maternity leave.

What Does ‘Sustainable’ Palm Oil Actually Mean?

In response to all of these issues, several companies in the palm oil industry joined with the WWF in 2004 to found the nonprofit Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).

The RSPO’s self-stated goal is to “transform the palm oil industry to make it sustainable” by “bringing together stakeholders from across the palm oil supply chain to develop and implement global standards” for sustainable palm oil production. Companies and products that receive RSPO’s blessing can label themselves “CSPO,” or “certified sustainable palm oil.”

Is Sustainable Palm Oil Actually Ethical, or Just Greenwashing?

All of this sounds nice. But has it actually worked? Is “sustainable palm oil” actually ethical? The answer depends on who you ask.

On the one hand, the RSPO says that its efforts have helped protect over 360,000 hectares of rainforest from destruction and, via the RSPO Complaints System, provided palm oil employees with a voice to address grievances. Its member organizations are officially forbidden from engaging in any type of deforestation, and the organization claims that the plantations it certifies yield significantly more palm oil than non-RSPO producers.

There have been some victories since the RSPO was founded. Wilmar, the largest palm oil producer, announced a no-deforestation policy in 2013 — a significant development, as Wilmar then controlled one-third of the global palm oil market. Eight years after that, palm oil deforestation in Indonesia hit a 20-year low.

While it’s difficult to trace these developments to any one cause, they did occur under the RSPO’s watch.

Problems With the RSPO and Sustainable Palm Oil

There are reasons to doubt that the RSPO has been particularly successful in its mission. As many critics have pointed out, the RSPO allowed its members to engage in deforestation, in certain circumstances, for the first 14 years of its existence. It finally introduced a total ban on deforestation in 2018; however, events that unfolded the next year raised questions about whether or not that ban was being enforced.

In 2019, forest fires raged across Indonesia, destroying 7.7 million acres of land. Fire is a popular method of deforestation, and a Greenpeace investigation found that three-quarters of the forest fire “hot spots” on palm oil plantations in 2019 were on land controlled by RSPO members.

Meanwhile, a damning report from 2018 found that in Indonesia, RSPO-certified plantations were actually responsible for more tree loss per capita than non-certified ones. That same year, a Greenpeace investigation revealed that Wilmar, despite its “no deforestation” pledge, continues to source palm oil from producers that engage in both deforestation and unethical labor practices.

It’s important to keep in mind that the RSPO was founded and is largely run by palm oil companies. This creates a tension in the organization; although its member organizations may sincerely want to crack down on unethical palm oil practices, those organizations also want to make a profit, and in many cases, these unethical practices are also the most profitable.

So, Are Products Made With Sustainable Palm Oil Ethical or Not?

They can be, but they also might not be. The sad truth is that, when considering any given palm oil product, it’s impossible to know whether it was produced ethically, even if it carries the RSPO’s endorsement. Although the RSPO’s self-stated mission is a noble one, its actual record just doesn’t inspire confidence that the products it certified were truly produced in an ethical manner.

Should You Boycott All Palm Oil?

If it’s impossible to determine whether a palm oil product was ethically made, should ethically minded consumers simply boycott it altogether?

The answer is…probably not. The problem with boycotting palm oil is that it would almost certainly lead to an increase in demand for other oils — but all of those oils all require much more land to produce than palm oil. For all of its drawbacks, palm oil is less environmentally destructive than any of the alternatives, at least in terms of land usage. In addition, some potential replacements for palm oil, such as coconut oil, have their own ethical issues to contend with.

The Bottom Line

The thorny issues surrounding palm oil production highlight a difficult truth about modern society, which is that it’s simply not possible to know with certainty whether certain products were produced ethically or not. Palm oil is one such product, and despite the efforts of the RSPO, we don’t yet live in a world where it’s possible to buy palm oil that’s guaranteed to be ethical.

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