Palm Oil: The Ethical Dilemma

Whilst palm oil is technically vegan (it contains no animal-derived products), it is not a product that vegans should be consuming. There are two main reasons for this.

If you’re an ethical vegan, then you want to minimise the damage and effects that your actions have on the animals around you. That’s obviously why you don’t eat animals, or any animal products. Nor do you fund zoos, preferring to support animal sanctuaries where the sentient beings are not being locked up and exploited against their will. And whilst I know it’s impossible to be 100% animal cruelty free (for example, if you’re on neccesary medication), it is possible to greatly reduce your palm oil intake.

If you’re vegan for the environment, well, the connection is simple. You are aware that 136 million rainforest acres are cleared for animal agriculture, so by going vegan you’re playing a significant role in decreasing this. And, if you’ve seen Cowspiracy, you’ll know that in comparison, the rainforest cleared to grow palm oil is tiny. In fact, it’s only 26 million. But that statistic alone is still huge, and in order to do all you can for the environment, cutting out palm oil is a good step.

'Riau palm oil 2007' by Hayden is licensed under CC BY 2.0

So, what is palm oil and why is it bad?

Palm oil is the most popular type of vegetable oil, due to it’s quick growth speed and its versatility (you can find it in foods, cosmetics, even household cleaners). Of course, like everything that is grown on a large scale, destruction is never too far behind.

Rainforests and jungles are home to many different species of animals, most of whom have their habitat compromised by the deforestation that takes place to make room for palm plantations. I’m not going to list every animal who has been affected by the palm oil industry (there’s over 300,000), but these following animals are an example of how human interference can greatly endanger species. Orangutans, Sumatran Tigers, Sumatran Rhinoceros, Sun Bears, Pygmy Elephants, Clouded Leopards and the Proboscis Monkey have all felt the impact of palm oil. Another thing that many of these animals have in common is the increase in poaching, again, influenced by deforestation, which makes hunting easier.

'Borneo-sepilok-proboscis-monkey' by Casen. Available on CC0 Public domain

Many animals are affected by the palm oil industry, including the proboscis monkey

Is it all bad?

The short answer, is no. As a vegan, environmentalist, or wildlife conservationist, I would definitely advise people to boycott palm oil. But that doesn’t mean you should cut out all types of it.

Sustainable, ethically sourced palm oil is something that we should actively be supporting. At the moment, I’d say it’s less common than ‘regular’ palm oil, but you can still find the RSPO logo on many supermarket products. Funding this shows your support for Indonesian people who work on the plantations. Turning palm oil industries sustainable has greatly improved their quality of life. On top of this, sustainable palm oil actively fights to conserve and protect the animals and the rainforest. They understand the demand and need for palm, but at the same time, they are aware of worker’s rights, animal rights and the importance of the rainforest on our ecosystem.

What can I do?

We, the people, the consumers, are funding the industry with our dollar. In a way, we are the most important piece of the puzzle. If we collectively stopped buying products containing unsustainable palm oil, there would be no need for the industries to carry on. Even more so, if we actively funded and supported the growth of sustainable palm oil, we would also be supporting conservation, animal protection and many worker’s rights.

So, the following list contains a few examples of things you can do to help influence the palm oil industry for the better.

  1. If you haven’t done so already, go vegan. In addition to saving rainforest acres through the consumption of sustainable palm oil, ditching the dairy and the meat will significantly add to the positive impact you are having on the environment.
  2. Boycott companies that use unsustainable palm oil. This goes without saying, really. And when it comes to food, it’s easy enough to check labels to find out the ingredients. If you’re living in the UK, Sainsbury’s products seem to almost always be made with sustainable palm oil.
  3. Eat more whole foods and live minimally. If the majority of your diet comes from fruit, vegetables, legumes, and grains, then you’re unlikely to come across many foods containing palm oil. The bulk of palm oil ends up in processed foods. Buy less makeup/cosmetics, and when you do make a purchase, do some research and buy from an ecofriendly/sustainable/vegan company. Palm oil production has increased because consumer demands have increased. Let’s rethink and reduce our demands.
  4. Buy eco-friendly household products. Ecover is a good example, their products contain sustainable palm oil, are vegan, and cruelty free. Their brand is available in the UK, Europe and North America (and also online).
  5. Educate your family and friends. If you reduce your palm oil intake, that’s wonderful, but if you inspire others to follow in your footsteps, that’s even better!
  6. Use your power as a consumer to get your voice heard. Email companies, tell them what you want from them. Ask them why they don’t use sustainable palm oil. Praise the companies that do (this is just as important, positive reinforcement is good!). You can also sign petitions, as strength in numbers often pushes through change. Sending an email or signing an online petition won’t take more than a few minutes out of your day, but it could get your voice heard.
  7. Always remember, that even if you feel like you are alone in this, you are making a difference. Every individual has a voice, and every individual can make an impact. In times like this, I like to turn to this story to remind myself of this.

'Oil palm plantation in Cigudeg-03' by Achmad Rabin Taim, licensed for use under CC BY 2.0

That’s all I’m going to be writing about this topic for the time being. If it becomes popular, I may do a more in-depth post about the specific animals that the palm oil industry effects, or on specific products that I use which are palm-oil free.

Do you think it’s important to boycott unsustainable palm oil? What do you do to try and minimise the negative impact you’re having on the planet’s wildlife and environment? Let me know in the comments! Don’t forget to share this page and subscribe to the website for new content. You can also find me on YoutubeTwitter,Instagram, Google + and Tumblr for even more!

Image Credits:

Riau palm oil 2007‘ by Hayden is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Borneo-sepilok-proboscis-monkey‘ by Casen is available for free use on CC0 Public Domain

Oil palm plantation in Cigudeg-03‘ by Achmad Rabin Taim, licensed for use under CC BY 2.0


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