As you read this blog, I want you to take a moment and think about what you did today.
Perhaps you woke up this morning, had a shower, shampooed your hair, brushed your teeth, and had a slice of toast with margarine for breakfast.
Then, you went to work, snuck a cookie in with your morning coffee, ate a pot of noodles for lunch and washed your cutlery with dishwasher detergent.
When you got home, maybe you washed your face with cleansing wipes or put on a load of laundry or cleaned the stove top like you’ve been meaning to do for ages. And then you ate a bowl of ice-cream.
Seems a pretty normal day, right?
Now, I’d like you to ask yourself some questions: how much do you know about the products you choose to eat and use? Do you know where they come from? How they are made?
It’s probably pretty obvious if they’re organic, free-range, nut-free or gluten-free. But are they palm-oil free?
If your typical day is anything like the one I described above, then chances are you eat or use palm oil at least 11 times a day.
And that’s not good.
The growth of the palm oil industry
Palm oil is an edible vegetable oil derived from the fruit of the oil palm tree which flourishes in tropical conditions. It’s versatility, low price, long shelf life, and lack of trans-fats make it a popular alternative to other oils in the food, cosmetic and biofuel industries. Just look around your house or office and you’ll find dozens of products that use palm oil: soap, pizza dough, chocolate, shampoo, detergent, packaged bread, lipstick and those instant noodles you had for lunch (just to name a few).
In response to the palm oil crisis, criteria was put in place to certify certain palm oil as sustainable. There are products that contain oil certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, and these can be used without contributing to the clearing of Borneo’s jungles. An important criteria item states no forests which support significant life and fragile ecosystems or areas supporting cultural communities can be cleared.
Palm oil is the highest yielding and most widely consumed vegetable oil on the planet: globally we’re consuming over 50 million tonnes each year. And it’s in half of all packaged products sold in your supermarket.
Need more information? Watch this.
Video: The Problem With Palm Oil by TakePart
So what’s the problem?
Well, the cheap production costs and growing demand for palm oil have placed pressure on palm oil-producing countries like Indonesia to rapidly expand their oil palm plantations and ramp up their production processes. They do this by clearing vast areas of old-growth (and virtually irreplaceable) rainforest to make way for their plantations. This often illegal deforestation threatens the fragile rainforest ecosystems and destroys the habitats of critically endangered species including orangutans, elephants and tigers.
Indonesia is the world’s largest producer of palm oil with more than 10 million hectares of oil palm plantations producing over 27 million tonnes of palm oil a year.
Palm oil development contributes to other problems such as Indigenous rights abuses, modern day slavery, child labour and climate change. And the new road networks give poachers and wildlife smugglers better access to areas of forest where they capture and sell wild animals as pets, use them for medicinal purposes, or kill them for their body parts.
Over 50,000 orangutans on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra have died because of palm oil deforestation. Orangutans whose habitats have been destroyed often enter villages and oil plantations in search of food where they are captured or killed by farmers who treat them as pests. In 2016, it was reported that just 45,000 orangutans remained in Borneo and at this rate, they will be extinct in the wild in just 25 years.
The impact of unsustainable palm oil development is devastating.
What can I do to help?
Image: Baby Bornean orangutan, photo by Arbain.
As consumers, there are important steps we can all take to reduce our contribution to palm oil deforestation and live a more natural, ethical and sustainable life…
1. Shop Responsibly
You can choose to make informed shopping choices and buy products that are palm oil free or which use responsibly sourced palm oil from plantations where growth has been managed. Look for products and manufacturers that are certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).
Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to identify products that use palm oil. Some countries, like Australia and New Zealand, allow palm oil to be labelled simply as ‘vegetable oil’. Generally, if the saturated fat content in a product is around 50 per cent, it’s likely that the ‘vegetable oil’ is actually palm oil.
Palm oil and its derivatives can appear under many other names like ‘Sodium Laureth’ or ‘Lauryl Sulphate’ which makes it difficult (but not impossible) to shop sustainably. Palm Oil Investigations has created an app for iPhone and Android that will help you navigate the supermarket aisles and avoid products containing unsustainable palm oil. You can download it here.
2. Use Your Voice
Support palm oil labelling, donate to local grass root organisations, sign petitions, and write to companies and manufacturers that use palm oil in their products, urging them to source sustainable palm oil or remove palm oil from their ingredients completely.
Don’t underestimate the impact your voice can have – companies will pay attention and make changes when they see unsustainable palm oil products are an issue that consumers care about.
3. Travel Sustainably
Promote sustainable travel that benefits local communities, protects wildlife and minimises your impact on the environment by choosing to explore the fragile and undisturbed rainforests of places like Borneo with genuine ecotourism operators.
Ecotourism operations like Orangutan Trekking Tours offer authentic and educational tours for travellers who want to minimise their carbon footprint and help preserve the rich biodiversity and delicate ecosystems of Borneo’s rainforests.
“It’s surely our responsibility to do everything within our power to create a planet that provides a home not just for us, but for all life on earth.” – David Attenborough
Taking that little bit extra time to make informed choices and use products that don’t contain unsustainable palm oil in their ingredients is a small sacrifice for us, but for the future of Borneo’s wildlife, it means the world.
If you would like to see the Borneo that has been untouched by deforestation, explore the jungle with us: our different tours are listed here.