The Blog

Animal Welfare and Palm Oil in Products We Buy

While it is great to see all these multinational palm oil producers making the pledge to protect forests for the sake of wild animals, how would one know at the retail level which products use palm oil from these producers?
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

In case you missed Jane Velez-Mitchell's interview with model Katie Cleary, here it is. Katie made an impassioned plea to the viewers to stop buying products that use palm oil.

So what is it about orangutans that gets animal lovers like Katie Cleary so worked up against palm oil? A big part of it has to be their human-like characteristics which create an instant bond between us and them, and the fact that the baby orangutan is just so darned adorable!


It's not only orangutans that are being affected by palm oil. Equally adorable apes like chimpanzees are being threatened with extinction as well as the palm oil industry moves into Africa. Scientists are calling great apes like the orangutan and chimpanzee "canaries in the coal mine" as many other species of animals will go extinct if nothing is said or done today.

So what can an animal lover do to avoid buying products that may have caused suffering to animals? You can take up Jane Velez-Mitchell's suggestion to eat fresh as palm oil is used mostly in processed foods. Her other great suggestion was to send a message to all companies to "do this sustainably" but what does this mean to the average consumer who wants to remove any possibility of causing suffering in their daily purchases?

From an animal welfare perspective, when companies choose to "do palm oil sustainably" it means that they have surveyed new areas for plantations to make sure that no forest homes for endangered wild animals are within the planned plantation areas. If their surveys show the presence of forests that are home to orangutans or chimpanzees for that matter, then a company that is working sustainably, will preserve those forests.

Sounds simple enough but how do we know what companies or brands are using sustainable palm oil?

That is the hardest question to answer despite all the recent positive statements made by corporations. The Palm Oil Innovation Group (POIG), which was created by palm oil producers and nonprofit groups states clearly in its charter:

"1.8. Protect and conserve wildlife"

A second group of palm oil producers introduced the Sustainable Palm Oil Manifesto (SPOM) recently and included in this manifesto is the pledge that there will be no development in high conservation value (HCV) areas. HCV areas being the homes to orangutans and other wildlife.

While it is great to see all these multinational palm oil producers making the pledge to protect forests for the sake of wild animals, how would one know at the retail level which products use palm oil from these producers? You cannot, not unless the two groups POIG and SPOM decide to introduce eco labels under which they would work.

The only certification body with a global reach is the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). I can already hear the protests that the RSPO is a greenwash that certifies rainforest destruction.

Watch this lighthearted video from Ben Jenkins of ABC Australia on the RSPO and sustainable palm oil to understand some of the issues.

Earth Choice from Natures Organics which was featured in the video is one of the better brands I know of in terms of being environmentally responsible. Despite its quite hefty buying clout, the company is still unable to secure certified sustainable palm oil simply because the supply chain globally for palm oil is so convoluted. Palm oil starting out as certified gets lost as it is sold and mixed in with palm oil from who knows where, and that is unfortunately the reason why there is no "RSPO Certified" logo on Earth Choice products.

Should consumers trust the RSPO logo if they see one on a product?

The answer is yes. The presence of the logo would mean that the palm oil used is certified under their "Segregated" supply scheme. I've challenged enough RSPO members to know that this certification does not come cheap or easy.

But having said that there are a few notes that consumers should make, when approaching their favorite brands about their use of palm oil. A common response by companies is "We are members of the RSPO." This statement means absolutely nothing in terms of their product being sustainable or cruelty-free. It's like saying they paid money to join a club but doesn't tell you if they actually attend meetings or participate in club activities.

As for all the allegations of the RSPO being a greenwash tool for its members and should therefore be rejected, that would be like throwing out the baby with the dirty bathwater. The biggest issue I find with the RSPO is how slow their processes take but considering that any decisions they make affects close to 60 percent of the global supply, it's worth waiting for. As for the other 40 percent of palm oil plantations whose reckless behavior is always blamed on the RSPO, Marcel Silvius from Wetlands International said it best last week in an op-ed.

In my view, the best way RSPO can react to this is by sharing in the outrage of Ford. The abuses highlighted by Ford are the very reason why the RSPO was established in the first place. The RSPO will only be truly successful if it can create the level playing field for achieving 100 percent sustainable palm oil. The RSPO should point its finger at irresponsible industry. And the RSPO should demand from government legislation to hold the entire sector to at least the same principles and criteria that the RSPO stands for. This would be in line with its vision; not 100 percent sustainable oil from its membership but 100 percent sustainable palm oil from the sector as a whole.

If you're still reading at this point, I thank you for showing your concern for wild animals and their welfare. Most people I've talked to about palm oil issues would have quit at paragraph two and cut me short with "So how do I know what product uses sustainable palm oil and which store carries it?"

Good news is that the palm oil production members of POIG and SPOM are members of the RSPO as well, which is to say that every great step they take to produce palm oil sustainably will be become part of the supply for RSPO-certified palm oil.

Solid steps are being taken by better palm oil companies to look after planet Earth and its wild animals. We need to encourage these companies to complete the journey to produce cruelty-free palm oil and that can be done today by supporting the brands that have made commitments to use only sustainable palm oil by 2015.

To make a difference to the industry that can be felt worldwide, we need to encourage a mass movement of consumers who care about environmental issues but do not have the time to study the issues in-depth. The best way of doing that is to have a logo in the marketplace. A tell all symbol like the leaping bunny logo that will say with one glance, this product is OK.

As the only existing group with a logo for the retail side of things, the RSPO has to listen to us, the consumers and work with our concerns to build up what we will accept as cruelty-free palm oil under "RSPO Certified."