If you cast your memory back to the weeks leading up to Christmas 2018, you may vaguely remember the controversy of Iceland’s banned TV advertisement starring a cartoon orangutan who takes refuge in a child’s bedroom. Partnering with Greenpeace, Iceland sought to use the advert to explain the damages that palm oil is doing to the orangutan’s natural habitat. As a result of it being backed by a political pressure group, the advert breached political advertisement laws and was banned from being televised. Iceland received nation-wide attention, and a petition to air its’ not-so-festive Christmas ad gained over 700,000 signatures. The advert was released in light of Iceland’s commitment to removing palm oil from all of its independent products in an attempt to be a more sustainable business. But in reality, when it comes to sustainability, boycotting palm oil is actually really counter effective.
Palm oil gets a lot of stick for being a key ingredient in loads of stuff we consume on a daily basis. It’s in our biscuits, shampoo, lipstick and toothpaste, and even Lush has released a statement saying they’re struggling to find alternatives for their products. Due to the sheer amount of demand for palm oil due to its universality, rainforests are being burned by corporations to clear land for the growth of the oil palm tree- the plant from which palm oil is produced. Deforestation is obviously a huge contributor to the rise in greenhouse gas emissions and causes the devastation of natural habitats. Hence why so many environmentalists want you to give up palm oil- it is seemingly responsible for deforestation, rising CO2 emissions due to the fires, and the extinction of animals and rich biodiversity.
But it isn’t actually palm oil itself which causes all these issues- it’s the high demand for the products that contain it. Palm oil is actually incredibly resourceful and produces three times the amount of oil per hectare than its vegetable oil alternatives, such as sunflower, soyabean and rapeseed. This makes it more efficient to grow and use than other oils, as it requires much less land and therefore much less deforestation. Essentially, boycotting palm oil doesn’t stop deforestation- it simply puts pressure on companies to switch to less economical oils to appease the unaware consumer, which would actually result in more deforestation instead.
Instead of outright boycotting palm oil, we should pressure corporations to produce it sustainably. This would prevent companies from ignorantly switching to less effective oils such as rapeseed and sunflower, and instead encourage them to continue using palm oil which is acquired from a more sustainable source. There are certified standardised palm oil plantations across the world and it is incredibly important to ensure all palm oil production becomes certified, rather than outright banned. Purchasing from companies which source their palm oil sustainably will pressure their competitors to do the same rather than wrongfully pledge to give up palm oil all together, much like Iceland has mistakenly done.
As the consumer, you can do your bit by choosing sustainably sourced brands, or by simply consuming less. It is the consumerist culture we live in which drives the high demand for palm oil. Just think of the three ‘R’s you learned when you were a kid: “reduce, reuse, recycle.” There’s a reason “reduce” comes first; the Earth has a finite amount of resources and if the palm oil industry is proving anything, it’s that our consumption levels are unsustainable. It’s hard to avoid things like shampoo and soap, but simply reducing your consumption of anything that contains palm oil, or choosing sustainably sourced alternatives, will have a huge impact- a much better impact than switching to less efficient oils.
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