Sustainable Palm Oil



Posted on 11 April 2011  | 
Person holding palm tree fruit collected for the palm oil industry, Sabah, Borneo, Malaysia.
© naturepl.com / Christophe Courteau / WWFEnlarge
Everything from cosmetics to chocolate bars could soon be carrying the sustainable palm oil label

It’s a key ingredient in your night out. It’s in the shampoo that makes your hair shine, the toothpaste that makes your smile sparkle and the lipstick that knocks ’em dead.

Or maybe you’re planning a night in, indulging in crisps, chocolate and ice cream? You’ll find it in those too.

You wouldn’t believe how much we use palm oil. It’s in around half the products on our supermarket shelves. And as a biofuel, it could soon be running your car too.

But it often comes at a price that doesn’t show up on the till receipt. Deforestation. The loss of species. Indigenous people being forced off their land. Pollution. Climate change.

Demand for palm oil is increasing and has become central to the economies of the developing countries where it’s grown. Producing it sustainably is one of the biggest challenges we face.

What’s at stake?

Most palm oil is produced in Malaysia and Indonesia on land that was once thriving rainforest. As global demand grows, more and more forests are being cleared – not just in Southeast Asia, but in the tropical forests of Africa and Latin America too.

Deforestation is never good news, but in biodiversity hotspots like Borneo and Sumatra it’s catastrophic. Endangered species including orang-utans, tigers, elephants and rhinos are losing critical habitats, pushing them toward extinction. 

When forests are cleared to make way for palm oil, carbon is released into the atmosphere – particularly in places like Sumatra where peat soils beneath the rainforest also store vast amounts of carbon. It’s largely because of forest clearance that Indonesia now has the world’s third highest greenhouse gas emissions, after the United States and China.

Worldwide demand for palm oil is expected to double by 2020. The way we produce it has to change – fast.

The story so far

Through the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), we showed that you can harvest wood sustainably and profitably. We’re helping to change the fishing industry with the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). Now we’re doing the same with palm oil.

It is possible to increase palm oil production without cutting down forests. We’ve identified non-forest areas where oil palms could be grown. Indonesia has an estimated 30 million hectares of degraded land that could be suitable for oil palm cultivation – this alone would allow the country to more than double production by 2020.

We’ve also identified areas that are particularly important for species and the environment, which need to be conserved. We’re working with governments to strengthen their planning and land-use policies so palm oil is produced in places where it has the least impact.

In 2004, we helped set up the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), a group that includes all major links in the global supply chain, from growers and processors, to food companies and retailers and investors.

With the RSPO, we’ve developed a set of international standards for responsible palm oil production. Producers that show they meet these criteria are able to sell certified sustainable palm oil. That means companies that use it in their lipstick, soap, margarine or whatever else can make the same guarantee to their customers.

Certified sustainable palm oil cannot be grown in place of primary forest or in important conservation areas. Growers have to use the best growing practices to keep soil and water supplies healthy, and to reduce pollution and carbon emissions. They also need to pay a decent wage and respect the rights of workers and communities.

Did you know?

If you see “vegetable oil” in a list of ingredients, it probably means palm oil – it makes up about two-thirds of vegetable oil traded internationally.

Facts and stats

  • 80 – mammal species found in primary forest in Malaysia
  • 12 – mammal species found in oil palm plantations in Malaysia 
  • 6.4% – proportion of palm oil that’s certified sustainable
  • ½ – proportion of all supermarket products contain palm oil
  • 7,500 – orang-utans remaining in Sumatra, where their habitat is under threat from palm oil production
  • 93,600 sq km – rainforest destroyed in Indonesia between 2000 and 2005, an area the size of Portugal. Palm oil is one of the leading causes of deforestation in Indonesia.

Video: Sustainable Palm oil production



WWF in Action

Dahlan has high hopes for what sustainable palm oil can bring to his village.

“With an RSPO certificate, we will be able to sell our palm oil at a higher price on national and international markets,” he says. “Then we can develop our villages and repair our houses. Also I hope to send my children to university to get a higher education.”

Dahlan, 49, lives in Dosan village in Riau province, Indonesia. He’s one of 1,156 households in the district who together farm 3,500 hectares of oil palms.

Before the oil palm plantation, the villagers grew rubber, but this was highly dependent on the weather. Dahlan’s father had to work several jobs – as a rubber tapper, as a fisherman and in the paddy fields – just to support his family. 

Certified sustainable palm oil doesn’t only promise a better standard of living. The villagers also want to preserve natural forest within their territory so their children can learn about local trees species, Dahlan says. They also understand the forest’s importance for providing water and flood prevention.

Between 25-40% of palm oil produced in Indonesia comes from smallholders like Dahlan. As an important part of rural livelihoods, palm oil has the potential to lift many people out of poverty. We’re working with local partners to help communities like Dahlan’s to produce palm oil sustainably and achieve RSPO certification.

What next?

As the demand for certified sustainable palm oil increases, so does the price producers can command – and it becomes a more attractive option for them.

We’re working with the companies that make and sell food, cosmetics and other products containing palm oil. We want them to:
  • become active members of the RSPO
  • start buying certified sustainable palm oil immediately
  • commit to using 100% certified sustainable palm oil by 2015 at the latest.

China and India are two of the largest emerging markets for palm oil, and already import around a third of the world’s total. We’re working with companies and governments there to promote sustainable palm oil.

How you can help




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Person holding palm tree fruit collected for the palm oil industry, Sabah, Borneo, Malaysia.
© naturepl.com / Christophe Courteau / WWF Enlarge
Aerial view of palm oil plantation on deforested land, Sabah, Borneo, Malaysia.
© naturepl.com / Juan Carlos Munoz / WWF Enlarge
Palm Oil Contained In Everyday Products.
© WWF-Canon / Richard Stonehouse Enlarge

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