Palm Oil - Is Your Chocolate Contributing To Deforestation?

Palm oil trees from aerial view. A car drives through centre road.

The headline may seem extreme, but is essence, it is very accurate. It is the responsibility of manufacturers to do more. Those who are not doing enough, such as those highlighted in this article, NEED to take responsibility for their actions and their consequential impact on the environment. It is not an exaggeration to say that they are in a position of power to make a difference to the world, and bring about real change in both perspective and to the physical environment. One thing is for certain, the onus should not be on you as a consumer, to force this change. Companies, should lead the way. 

hold on, I don't even know what palm oil is...

Although you may not be aware of it, palm oil is an essential ingredient in products ranging from chocolates, margarine and bread, to shampoo, lipstick and soaps. It is in fact, the most widely consumed vegetable oil in the planet. So you almost certainly use it every day in some capacity.

so why is this a problem?

As Sir David Attenborough points out in his latest documentary (an essential watch for the entire human race in our humble opinion), many of the rainforests where palm oil plantations are prevalent look perfectly fine and healthy from an aerial view. Just looking at the photo above, you may think so too. But those are not the natural trees found in that area of forest...These areas have been deforested and bulldozed to make way for plantations of palm oil trees to cheaply produce this 'essential' oil. For those of you shouting "but they are replanting trees! What's the problem?", I wish it was that simple.

The persistence of large manufacturers of confectionary and other products utilising palm oil consistently is DRIVING the destruction of rainforests. And this my friends, is leading to some huge problems...

① Climate change: especially in south-east Asia and the Amazon rainforest. Known as the 'Lungs of the Earth' (though this observation isn't entirely accurate), the Amazon makes its most significant contribution in pulling carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, acting more like a massive air conditioning unit in charge of cooling the planet. In turn, the destruction largely driven by palm oil plantations is damaging one of our most powerful weapons in mitigating climate change and stabilising rainfall cycles. While these areas are having life grown on them again, their replacements are contributing much less in terms of 'conditioning' our air. Most evidently, as there are generally less palm oil trees planted in their place - given that palm oil is being farmed and therefore are planted with spacings considered. Most powerfully though - the older, larger trees which are being cut down are capable of producing more oxygen and reducing more CO2 than their palm oil counterparts. So, not only are there less trees in our forests, those that are planted are capable of a lesser impact than their predecessors.

② Loss of habitats, and therefore wildlife. Not to overquote Sir David Attenborough (though he is the most important voice of truth on these matters) but it is our responsibility to "Rewild the World". The continued destruction of rainforests to make way for palm oil plantations is directly and devastatingly contradicting this duty. As habitats are cleared in place of palm oil plantations, species of elephant and rhino are put at particular risk as their homes are uprooted. Even more devastatingly effected are the animals who live in the trees that are being cut down.

Three orangutan stand in a deforested area they used to call home.

Orangutans, the world's largest tree-dwelling mammals, have seen populations drop by as much as two thirds in the last sixty years - that equates to only 33 in every 100 remaining. And that is not to mention that our rainforests are also home to a number of indigenous peoples and countless plant species. The most frustrating thing is - we can do something about it! Harming our environment and our wildlife is all totally avoidable if we - or rather those commissioning these plantations - are not so careless!

it's time to name and shame them

According to reports referenced in an article by The Guardian, 'some of the world’s biggest brands are failing in their commitments to banish deforestation from their palm oil supply chains; despite making public claims to environmental sustainability'. This, is a problem. The goal for many companies was to "phase out" deforestation by implementing sustainable palm oil by 2020 but as reports from the WWF indicate, for many, it is looking to be an unachievable feat. Huge household names including Kellogg’s, Greggs, Pepsi, Nestle, Warburtons and Mondelez (who produce Cadbury and Oreo) are referenced in these reports as falling well short of targets in improving their supply chain's sustainability. As much as we are not imploring you to boycott these brands, we wouldn't blame you if you did...

Palm oil does not have to cause deforestation. Gluttony and greed is what drives these erratic and frankly harmful behaviours. For those of you unaware, palm oil initially became the ingredient of choice for many manufacturers as it lessened the environmental and social impacts of its predecessors (farming of cocoa beans for example, but we'll not get into that). More so, it allowed manufacturers to develop their products at a lesser cost. However, somewhere along the way, chasing a lesser cost to consumers has ended up increasing the cost to the environment. If manufacturers were to simply take control of their supply chains and refuse to contribute to deforestation by stamping out suppliers cutting corners, while also taking a focus to develop more sustainable alternatives to palm-oil, we could see real change, lessening the cost to our environment and wildlife. 

it ain't all bad

As you may have seen in Vol #2 of the Sustainable Scoop by ReLove, moves are being made by BIG manufacturers to stamp out deforestation by way of improving their palm oil supply chains. Mars, the huge manufacturer of chocolates and other confectionaries including Galaxy, Maltesers, and - of course - Mars bars, have eliminated deforestation in their supply by narrowing their chosen suppliers from thousands to mere hundreds. The move, made in an effort to exert more control over their sustainable practices, is exactly the kind of effort we hope spreads, particularly to those shamed above. In case you were curious, Waitrose and M&S are ranked among the best mainstream chocolate manufacturers in terms of in their palm-oil sustainability.

what can I do to help?

① Most obviously, you could avoid palm oil altogether. It isn't the option we take, but if you so choose, read the label and look for 'palm-oil-free'. It often is a more costly alternative (since the reason it is used is to provide a cheaper substitute to more traditional alternatives), but if you want to say a big NO to these manufacturers, it is the route to take.

② Most realistically, you can alert to choose more sustainable options, such as that coming soon with all Mars products. Look for those labelled as containing 'sustainable palm-oil'. While you may feel it to be counterproductive, this labelling indicates products that are strictly free of further deforestation; instead utilising ground that has already fell victim to these processes in the past.

 Most powerfully, in our opinion, is that of your perspectives. Make them heard! Now that could be by straight up boycotting brands and refusing to eat or use anything with 'palm-oil' listed as an ingredient. But that is not where the true power lies. The difficultly with option  is in how many people would, or indeed should, alert to take it. Instead of taking on the responsibility of ridding your cupboards of these brands and products, you can help lead a larger scale change by nudging manufacturers and indeed government in the right direction with the greatest power at your disposal - your perspectives. By sharing articles such as this one on social media; telling your friends (and anyone who will listen) to watch important documentaries like that of Sir David Attenborough's 'A Life on Our Planet'; seeking counsel with your local MPs about the issue and signing petitions on the likes of Change.org, you can help force widescale change, without having to uproot your individual purchases. 

At ReLove, we are already palm-oil free in our products, but we want to use our platform to shine a light on this issue. Search, "Orangutans" on Change.org and you'll see a host of petitions - please support them all and put pressure on manufacturers, including those shamed above, to take more responsibility for their actions! It takes less than a minute and can make all the difference.

I was as shocked as you when reading some of this for the first time. It was only watching Sir David's documentary that I realised the gross extent of the problem. Although we at ReLove do not offer a direct solution since we don't sell anything with palm-oil as an ingredient, we intend to use our platform to do our part by shining light on the issue of deforestation and palm-oil. We hope you are inspired to do the same. Choosing reusable, and sustainable, is our mantra.

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