The Perils of Palm Oil

Misty green jungle landscapeI’ve danced around educating myself about palm oil for several months. I know it presents a great threat to the rainforest, but as I’m not primarily a wildlife or biodiversity advocate, I thought I might be able to file it away as someone else’s problem. Sometimes you just don’t want to take on one more cause.

However, as several articles rolled out recently calling into question the validity of the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), I was drawn to learn more. Seeking an expert, I interviewed fellow Ethical Writers Coalition member Magdalena Antuña, editor and founder of Selva Beat magazine. An avid advocate for changes in the palm-oil industry, Magdalena publishes content focused on ethical and palm-oil-free living.

Through the interview, I learned several shocking facts. First of all, palm oil is not a threat to the rainforest alone: Through the destruction of peatlands, palm oil agriculture emits thousands of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, making it a significant climate change offender. Second, palm plantations have been identified as sites of human trafficking, and plantations often grab land from vulnerable populations in order to expand. Third, palm oil can legally go by over 200 names on product packaging, making it difficult to avoid.

I’m now convinced that consumers (myself included) can no longer ignore the abuses of the palm oil industry, and we have the responsibility and power to demand better environmental and social practices. Read on for my full interview with Magdalena to learn more about the perils of palm oil as well as how you can help.

Fair for All: Where does palm oil come from?

Magdalena Antuña: Palm oil is an edible vegetable oil, extracted from the fruit which grows on African oil palm trees. As the name denotes, these trees are native to Africa but are primarily grown in Indonesia and Malaysia. In fact, oil palm trees can only be grown ten degrees North or South of the equator, a band of Earth that scientists have deemed incredibly bio-rich, rife with endemic and/or endangered species. So, though SE Asia is the primary market for the production of palm-oil, we see similar issues emerging in Africa and South America where this industry is beginning to pick up considerable momentum.

How is palm oil related to deforestation? Are there other issues with palm oil in addition to deforestation?

Palm oil is directly tied to deforestation because, like most vegetable oils, it must be farmed in order to be extracted for use. The global demand for this oil is so incredibly high that millions of hectares of land—which, in this region happens to be primarily rainforest—must be cleared and/or primed for monoculture plantations.

But not all of this land is free of human life. Another issue we see with palm-oil is land grabs, which rob indigenous peoples of their only homes. Though palm-oil creates many jobs, the labor standards—much like those in sweat shops—on plantations can be frighteningly low. Our rapid consumption stresses the system, in turn asking more and more of plantation workers. It’s also important to remember that while this booming industry means big money, this wealth is not necessarily well distributed. Previously, we’ve seen many cases where in laborers are lured from other cities and countries, promised good work, and fooled into what is essentially indentured servitude—practically starved and barred from communication with their loved ones.

Orangutan looking calmly to the side

Orangutan habitat is threatened by the expansion of palm oil plantations.

Deforestation gets a lot of attention for two reasons: endangered wildlife and global warming. Many areas where oil palm plantations can be found—in Africa and South America, too—were originally suitable habitat for some of the world’s most beloved animals: endangered orangutans, tigers, pangolins, sun bears, chimpanzees, the list goes on. Today, we watch the Leuser Ecosytem dwindle away, primarily at the hands of conflict palm.

Because of global warming, we also have to monitor peatland destruction. Peatlands hold far more carbon than your average rainforest (up to 28x more) and when you cut down just a hectare, thousands of tons of carbon dioxide are released into the atmosphere. The recent fires that devastated Indonesia, caused largely by irresponsible paper and palm oil companies illegally clearing land, created more greenhouse emissions in just three weeks than all of Germany does in one whole year.

The oil itself is not evil, but our gluttonous consumption and reliance on it has, no doubt, made palm-oil one of the largest environmental and human rights issues the world has ever seen.

What everyday products contain palm oil?

Our rule of thumb is that if it’s packaged, there’s a strong possibility that product contains palm-oil.

Anything from the cereal you eat to the almond milk you drink to the shampoo with which you wash your hair. Toothpaste, easy spread butter, foundation and vegan products, too. Palm-oil is extremely versatile, so it can be the basis for a lot of other ingredients like glycerin, sodium lauryl sulfate, cetearyl alcohol, etc.

Here’s a full list of the 200+ names palm-oil can legally go by in stores.

Full frame of breakfast cereal O's

Packaged products from breakfast cereal to snack food to toiletries often contain palm oil.

You’ve written before about your disapproval of the RSPO and the responsible palm oil certification process. Are there ways a consumer can know for sure that the palm oil in a certain product is truly responsible?

In light of several recent ‘bombshell’ articles regarding the RSPO’s credibility, I can’t say with confidence that there’s one fool-proof way for consumers to identify ethical palm-oil. This article is a great primer on how the supply chains work, as well as, how to speak with companies about their usage.

Put very simply, the word sustainability means little to nothing. Grill companies on their ability to trace their palm-oil from plantation to shelf. If a company says they use certified sustainable palm-oil, dig a little further. Traceability is key. No deforestation and peatland protection agreements score high, as well.

The world does need a governing body, like the RSPO or POIG, but it is similarly important that we remain critical of that body’s ability to police these practices effectively.

What are a few of your favorite palm oil-free products?

That’s actually kind of tough! I have a lot to choose from but perhaps my top three right now would be:

  • Earthpaste Toothpaste in Peppermint
  • Meow Meow Tweet’s Beer Shampoo Bar
  • Axiology lipstick in Elusive – perfect for fall!

What can the average person do to help the palm oil situation?

I believe passionately that consumers can make a difference regarding the palm-oil problem. It is genuinely ridiculous that the entire world should rely on the forests of only a handful of countries. Our view is that all palm-oil should be traceable, conflict-free, and ethically produced. But, that doesn’t mean that we should still have to eat and use it in everything.

We absolutely can, as a society, lessen our reliance on palm-oil. Begin by mitigating your consumption of packaged and processed foods. Fall in love with whole foods, local and organic produce. Rally with your community against irresponsible brands, urging them to fulfill their basic obligation to the planet. Start a Palm-Oil Action Team in your hometown via the Rainforest Action Network. Get into the habit of writing just one e-mail a night before you go to sleep.

It seems daunting, I know. But there will always be someone telling you that your contribution isn’t big enough to make a difference and you must remember that they will also say that to the next person, the person after that, and so on. There are hundreds of thousands of people out there that share your passion, you just have to find them.


Thanks to Magdalena for sharing her knowledge and passion! For more information about palm oil advocacy and palm-oil-free living, check out Selva Beat.

The True Cost of Fashion

East Asian factory workers, a South Asian shoe sweatshop

I recently learned about a new documentary that sheds light on the hidden flaws of the fashion industry. The True Cost explores the fashion supply chain from the cotton fields of India to factories in Cambodia and Bangladesh and exposes how the bargains we see on store racks are made possible by unsafe working conditions, rampant pesticide use and other negative factors. The film aims to answer the question, “Who really pays the price for our clothing?”

The True Cost focuses on establishing the fact that the fashion industry is deeply flawed and in need of major reform. According to a review by the LA Times, director Andrew Morgan says his intent was “to overwhelm the viewer with just how enormous the issue is.” I’m definitely a solution-focused person, so to an extent it bothers me that the film focuses so heavily on the problem, but in terms of educating the general public I think that’s where you have to start. (Plus it would be hard for a film to include solutions for a lot of different scenarios and consumers. That’s what blogs are for!)

I have yet to see the movie in full, but I plan to and would love to share the experience with other interested folks. Indianapolis locals: Would you be interested in attending a screening of this movie? I’ve never hosted a film screening before but I think this film could provoke great discussion, perhaps with an accompanying panel. If you or someone you know would be interested in such an event, let me know in the comments!

Everyone else, check out the True Cost website for a list of global screenings. You can also purchase the film on DVD or for digital streaming.

Have you seen The True Cost? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Let’s Start a Revolution

Fashion Revolution Day 24.04.15

Two years ago today, the Rana Plaza factory complex in Bangladesh collapsed, killing 1,133 workers and injuring over 2,500 more. Many of the victims worked making apparel for Western brands. This tragedy is commemorated with Fashion Revolution Day, a campaign to shine light on the people who make the clothes we wear, often in uncomfortable or downright dangerous conditions.

You can join the Fashion Revolution by asking your favorite brand “Who made my clothes?”

Take a photo of your clothing label and ask the brand on social media "Who made my clothes?"

I chose to call out athletic apparel brand Champion, since ethically-made activewear can be tough to find.

Members of the Ethical Writers Coalition are marking Fashion Revolution Day with posts on ethical fashion. Check out what my talented cohorts are saying:

I’m particularly excited about Alden’s petition for fashion retail websites to disclose the country of origin of their products. This small step toward transparency will help lead the way to more meaningful disclosures about supply chains and factories.

What brand are you calling out today?

Thank You & Year-End Roundup

2014 is on its way out the door, so I wanted to take a moment to thank everyone who has read and participated in the blog this year. We aim to help people understand the impacts of their purchases and promote justice, fairness and prosperity for all. Every comment and like and pageview means a lot to us because it means word is getting out and we’re one step closer to making that fairer world a reality.

We appreciate you and look forward to bringing you more in 2015! If there are any particular topics you’d like see covered or questions you’d like to have answered, please contact us—we want to help!

I can no other answer make but thanks. Shakespeare

Year-End Roundup

Since we haven’t done a roundup post in a while I wanted to end the year with a few thought-provoking links I’ve been saving up.

1. Uzbekistan Cotton Campaign – Forced labor in Uzbekistan continues, pulling over a million children, teachers, public servants and employees of private businesses to harvest cotton in often hazardous conditions. This website summarizes the situation and provides actions for governments, companies and citizens to take to put an end to this state-mandated labor. The Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights also has thorough documentation of the issue, including the Cotton Chronicle, which describes specific incidents in the fields.

2. Pollution from synthetic microfibers – Thousands of microfibers can wear off a synthetic garment in the wash and end up in the environment. This article describes one scientist’s work to research the impact of these fibers and solutions to minimize fiber runoff.

3. The truth about organic cotton – This blog post methodically breaks down the requirements of organic cotton certification and debunks some misconceptions, such as that organic cotton uses less water (it doesn’t). I really appreciated the scientific approach of this article. The author gets beyond the buzzwords so many brands use and shares real data.

We’ve come a long way this year but there’s still more work to do. Thanks for coming along with us!

News Roundup: May 2014

Happy Wednesday! Another month has gone by, which means it’s time for another roundup of articles and links that caught my interest recently. Check out the links below for some great resources and thought-provoking insights!

Creating a Fair Wardrobe – A four-part blog series from For the Love of Justice

Rendering of solar roadways

Rendering of solar roadways

Solar Roadways: The Most Groundbreaking Innovation since the Internet (Modavanti)

Why Textile Waste Should be Banned From Landfills (Triple Pundit)

Modavanti has teamed up with Green Tree Textiles for our Modacycle Campaign! – Details on Modavanti’s new textile recycling initiative (Modavanti)

Shopping for shoes is a minefield – This article points out how athletic shoes lag behind other apparel sectors in transparency/sustainability. (Dynamic Business)

The Rise of Conscious Business Needs the Support of Conscious Consumerism — Who should lead the way in ethical consumerism: business or consumers? (Pro Bono Australia)

Free2Work Electronics Industry Trends 2014 – Report on efforts being made by electronics companies to address exploitation and forced labor in their supply chains (Free2Work)

10 Biggest Excuses For Not Paying a Living Wage (And Why They Suck) (Ecouterre)

Fashionably Informed: 5 Ethical Fashion Companies (College Fashion)

Can fair trade clothing prevent the next factory tragedy? (Humanosphere)

Fabric generated from bacteria from The Next Black documentary

Fabric generated from bacteria from The Next Black documentary

The Next Black – Review of a documentary about technology in the future of fashion (The Note Passer)

Youths Sue U.S. Government Over Climate Inaction (Al Jazeera America)

Ifixit – Website that provides resources for repairing items instead of replacing them, which helps reduce waste and unnecessary consumption

I’ll leave you with this excellent pin from Let’s Be Fair:

What have you been reading lately? Let us know in the comments!

One Year Ago

Today is the one-year anniversary of the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh. More than 1,100 people were killed and more than 2,500 were injured in the collapse. As a result, factory safety and working conditions were thrust into the global spotlight. Since then the conversation about ethical fashion has continued to grow, and people have started to be more aware of the issues that exist in the clothing manufacturing world.

Fashion Revolution Day logo

Today is also Fashion Revolution Day, a worldwide initiative organized by a coalition of UK ethical fashion groups to intentionally coincide with the anniversary of Rana Plaza. Check out this list of ways to participate, from reading a book about the perils of fast fashion to wearing an item of clothing inside-out to donating to the Rana Plaza Arrangement.

Some companies whose clothing were manufactured in the Rana Plaza factory, such as Walmart, Benetton and The Children’s Place, have still not fairly compensated the victims’ families. The International Labor Rights Forum is conducting a day of action to call on these companies to pay. Visit their day of action web page for information about their events and links to petitions.

For me, today is a day to remember last year’s tragedy with sadness but also with hope for the future. There is still a long road ahead, but every vote we cast with our dollars for ethically-made products takes us one step closer to a world where this kind of tragedy doesn’t happen.

What are your thoughts on the anniversary of Rana Plaza? Are you participating in Fashion Revolution Day?