Palm Oil

Most people have heard of palm oil, but when we look at food labels we don’t always see it listed. However it can now be found in about half of all packaged foods and it also appear in soaps, cosmetics and fuel for cars and power plants.

Palm oil has many advantages to manufacturers and consumers and in some sense is the perfect oil. But, it is a very real threat to biodiversity and ecosystems.

Oil palm fruit © MPOC/RSPO

  • Palm oil  is the highest-yielding vegetable oil crop, which makes it very efficient.
  • It needs less than half the land required by other crops to produce the same amount of oil.
  • This makes palm oil the cheapest vegetable oil in the world.
  • It has great properties for foods; it doesn’t smell, cooks easily, has a smooth texture and is a natural preservative.


Deforestation © Michal Zrust

Producers of this oil have come under scrutiny as huge swathes of primary forests have been cleared to be converted into plantations. In some areas this deforestation also displaced local communities and in some plantations, worker’s rights have been ignored. It is this deforestation in Sumatra and Malaysia that is threatening tiger habitat at an alarming rate.

“The United Kingdom is working towards achieving 100% sourcing of credibly certified sustainable palm oil by the end of 2015”

UK Government statement on palm oil published 2012



Sustainable Palm Oil

Recently, with pressure exerted by concerned consumers, campaigning NGOs and conservation scientists, a growing number of players in the palm oil industry have committed to adopting more sustainable practices. Certification schemes have been developed.  One of the more well known is the Round Table for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) established 2004, to promote best practice and environmental responsibility.

Sumatran tiger © ZSL

For producers working in High Conservation Value (HCV) landscapes, much can be done to conserve biodiversity. Producers that wish to obtain certification, mitigating adverse impacts on HCV species and habitats is a key requirement. These measures can include introducing buffer zones and wildlife corridors and  specific species protection methods to allow access to ground cover, food, water and of course mates.

Conservationists are constantly looking at ways that sustainable production and certification schemes can improve.


  • 90% of the world’s palm oil is produced by Indonesia and Malaysia.
  • Indonesia is a core palm oil growing, processing, and trading country, as well as a large consumer of palm oil.
  • Indonesia is the world’s largest producer of palm oil and the second largest producer of certified sustainable palm oil (CSPO); 41% of annual production capacity of CSPO comes from Indonesia.
  • It is estimated that approximately 9% of Indonesia’s palm oil output is certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).
  • Malaysia is a core palm oil growing, processing, and trading country.
  • 49% of annual production capacity of certified sustainable palm oil (CSPO) comes from Malaysia – the largest producer of CSPO in the world.
  • It is estimated that approximately 14% of Malaysia’s output is RSPO certified.


 What can you do?

By making informed choices, consumers can bring about positive changes throughout the supply chain, from more sustainable practices in oil palm plantations to more transparent labelling of products in shops and supermarkets.

Here are a few suggestions for becoming a more active, ethical consumer of sustainable palm oil (WWF, 2011):

  • Support companies that have made commitments to using only certified sustainable palm oil.
  • Ask retailers to source certified sustainable palm oil, not only in their own-brand products but in all the products they sell. You can do this by contacting their customer service departments.
  • Ask manufacturers to source certified sustainable palm oil.
  • Look for the RSPO logo on the products that you buy.
  • Lobby your parliamentary or government representative to improve national legislation.
  • Join consumer awareness groups.
  • Join or support organisations that are actively campaigning for better standards.
  • Increase your own awareness of what is in your food.


The implications of palm oil production are complex.

Concerned campaigners suggest that manufacturers must consider sustainable alternatives to palm oil to halt rapid deforestation.  The use of palm oil as a bio-fuel when there are food shortages in some countries and the effects of deforestation on global climate change suggest that the debate is far from over.

ZSL’s Business and Biodiversity Programme Manager Elizabeth Clarke says

“Palm oil is a huge and complex issue, but you can help tigers by learning more about palm oil and encouraging shops and companies to take palm oil seriously”.


Product labelling

Under the new European Union legislation,  vegetable oil used in food products must be explicitly named on the label.  Manufacturers will no longer be able to hide palm oil in their ingredients under the generic term ‘vegetable oil’. However, this only applies to packaged foods.

This EU law came into effect on 13 December 2014.

Problem: This will not identify which are sustainably sourced products.


Demand for Palm Oil

The greatest demand for palm oil is from India, EU, China and Bangladesh.

EU countries have an opportunity to lead the way in demanding sustainable products. Labelling of palm oil on food packaging in the EU may turn consumers off palm oil if consumers are not given the correct message.

“Once palm oil is identified in products, consumers should use that knowledge to demand manufacturers switch to sustainable sources”



Links and resources

UK Government’s statement on Palm oil

Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO)  – Formed to promote sustainable palm oil

RSPO – Annual Communications of Progress (ACOPs) reports – see member companies declarations and reports

Sustainable Palm Oil Platform (SPOP) – Comprehensive library of tools and resources to inform best practice and sustainability in stakeholders

SPOP Transparency Toolkit – interactive resource, designed to assess oil palm growers on the information that they make publicly available about the sustainability of their operations.

Environment news

Fact Sheets

Ethical Consumer Palm Oil free list

RSPO Consumer Fact Sheet 2013

RSPO Shopping Guide

Zoo campaigns and guides

Zoos Victoria Don’t Palm Us Off

Cheyenne Mountain Zoo Palm Oil Crisis Palm Oil shopping Guide App

Philadelphia Zoo Unless Campaign