Ethical consumption: Why you should care about palm oil

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) released a trademark that will enable consumers to easily distinguish products containing palm ingredients that are sourced sustainably today. Over the next few years, it aims to be another symbol that ethical consumers can look out for during their purchase of sustainable products.

Palm cultivation has caused loss of primary tropical forests and carbon-rich peat-lands; RSPO was formed to generate a supply of palm oil that does not violate social and environmental standards. As multi-stakeholder organization, the RSPO brings together 400 palm growers, palm oil processors and traders, retailers, investors and leading NGOs such as WWF and Oxfam International.

The RSPO sets production standards and oversees certification systems that guard the entire supply chain of sustainable palm products. Before being certified, companies are inspected by third-party auditors. Marketing rules ensure that companies accurately inform consumers on their production or use of sustainable palm oil.

Since August 2008, more than 3 million tonnes of certified sustainable palm oil have been produced by certified growers. More than 60% of certified sustainable palm oil produced in the first 10 months of 2010 was purchased as well. Recently, the Dutch vegetable oil suppliers have pledged to order only eco-friendly palm oil cargoes by 2015.

Dutch businesses are Europe's largest importer and exporter of palm oil, accounting for 4% of global output. Much of the Dutch palm oil imports are processed and re-exported to the rest of Europe with close to 25% of the oil being used domestically. The Dutch Taskforce's move comes as Indian traders ask their government to cut its tax on green palm oil imports by 1-2% in a bid to boost consumption in the world's largest palm oil buyer.

The RSPO believes that the United States should make an initiative in switching to more sustainable forms of palm oil. A report, published by the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), says that while the U.S. is only a minor consumer of palm oil, its demand for the vegetable oil is fast rising. Palm oil, which is among the cheapest of vegetables owing to its high yield, is now found in up to 50% of packaged retail food products, cosmetics and lubricants

Even though palm oil is highly lucrative, it is also responsible for large scale deforestation in Malaysia and Indonesia. Scientists have called the crop the single greatest threat to biodiversity on the planet. The RSPO can play a pivotal role in ensuring a balance is met. The report also mentions that US-based companies and consumers play a key role in ensuring that palm oil becomes more sustainable. A boost in ethical consumerism could be the much needed signal to producers in Indonesia and Malaysia that there is indeed a market for greener palm oil.

This in turn could ensure that the nascent palm oil industry in Brazil will make sustainable production a priority. Consumer choices definitely do play an important role in world policies, economics and they should be exercised for a positive change.

Photo: The new sustainable palm oil logo