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The Problem with Palm Oil


If you’ve ever taken a stroll down virtually any grocery or department store aisle and scanned the ingredients listed on the products lining the shelves, there’s one ingredient that you’re likely to see over and over. Sure, you’ll find your fair share of chemicals, contaminants, and even some ingredients of questionable safety. But another sneaky and widely prevalent ingredient, which is natural in origin and causing quite the stir, is palm oil. Palm oil, while it sounds harmless and may conjure images of gently swaying palm trees and beachy vibes, is in fact wreaking havoc on the environment and critical habitats the world over.


Okay, I sound dramatic. Let me explain.


Where the Problem Began


Back in 2006, according to Global Voices, “trans fats” became a popular buzzword when the FDA required that all labels provide transparency about this ingredient due to its danger to heart health and Dr. Oz purported the palm oil as a life-saver. What resulted was a massive shift in companies reformulating foods and personal care products to instead use palm oil instead of trans fats. Palm oil didn’t carry the same burdensome title or connotation and proved to be inexpensive to manufacture. But with this transition also came the need to rapidly increase supply for the oil, which is only native to tropical regions like Indonesia and Malaysia.


Negative Consequences of Palm Oil


In order to meet the rising demand for palm oil globally, forests were razed to the ground to accommodate new voracious palm production. The forests of Indonesia and other palm-producing nations thrive on peatlands; a swamp-like environment that holds massive quantities of carbon. Peatlands can hold nearly 30 times as much carbon as rainforests that grow on mineral soil. When these rainforests are destroyed to carve a way for palm oil, this carbon retained in the peat has one direction to go - out into the atmosphere. One singular hectare of peatland rainforest reconfigured as a palm plantation can emit 6,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Ouch. That’s the equivalent of driving over 1,300 passenger cars for a full year. It’s no wonder that palm oil has been perpetuating the climate crisis, and it’s not the only negative consequence that palm oil has created or perpetuated.


Destroying habitat impacts local wildlife and communities as well. Endangered species including orangutans, rhinos, elephants, and tigers, all call peatland rainforests home. They contain an impressive array of biodiversity, and with each palm plantation that arises, the wildlife is further placed at risk as their habitat shrinks. Cities located near palm plantations are not excluded from harm either. Burning forests to clear land creates thick smog, which can greatly impact air pollution. In 2013, illegally burning forests in Singapore led to such poor air quality that local officials encouraged residents to stay inside.


So Where Do We Go from Here?


So why, then, you might ask, is palm oil so enormous as an industry? Palm is an efficient crop to produce, meaning that more oil can be produced per area of land than other similar oil crops. The crop itself naturally does not require the same amount of pesticide use, and has provided job opportunities to impoverished communities (although there is also evidence that child labor practices have been utilized to keep up with production as well). However, given the impacts of palm production (carbon emissions, destruction of habitat, deforestation, and harm to local air quality and communities, you name it) one sentiment has been echoed by a multitude of different sources over the years: unregulated palm oil simply isn’t worth it.


Now the question remains - how do we break our ties with palm oil? The best option is to avoid palm oil when possible. Choosing products that contain different ingredients can reduce the impact on the planet, and prioritize different oils such as sunflower, rapeseed, or coconut oils. Look for variations of palm oil on ingredients lists for food and cosmetics, which often include commonly use names such as “Palm Kernel Oil”, “Vitamin A Palmitate”, “Palmatic Acid” and more. The second option is to vote with your dollars and purchase products that are certified as sustainable palm oil products. This global standard set by the Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) certifies palm growers and small-scale farmers who regulate their carbon emissions, use transparent supply chains, treat their employees well, and respect their environment through reducing planting on peatlands and creating wildlife zones. This ensures that the palm oil in your cosmetics, snacks, shampoos, and more, is produced with extra attention to the environment and quality of life.


We’re Here to Take the Guesswork Out!


At Summit Sustainable Goods, we take extra steps while vetting products to ensure that all our zero waste household care and personal care products are truly environmentally friendly. No greenwashing here! Due to the nature of typical palm production, wherever possible we prioritize products that avoid palm oil. We verify that our few products containing palm oil are certified as sustainable. It’s just another way we live into our values of being as environmentally and ethically conscious as possible.


Where can you find our curated selection of high quality and sustainable products? You know we’ve got you covered! Check out our website at www.summitsustainablegoods.eco or visit us at a local pop-up around town. (Info available through our website or socials.) Want to follow our journey and learn about future zero waste events and happenings? Adventure with us by signing up for our monthly email subscription or follow us on Instagram or Facebook to keep up-to-date on all things Summit.


Much love,

Carrie, Founder


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