The ingredient is found in more than half of all packaged goods, and it poses quite a challenge for those who wish to eat (or even live) more sustainably.
Hand holding a single fruit of an oil palm
Credit: ic36006 / Getty Images

It's virtually impossible to avoid palm oil. It's an ingredient found in more than half of all packaged goods, including ice cream, baby formula, and soaps. It's ubiquitous, and it's incredibly problematic for anyone attempting to eat in a more sustainable, ethical way.

The production of palm oil has had devastating impacts on the planet. It has been linked to rampant deforestation to air, soil and water pollution, climate change, human rights, and labor abuses. So, while we're trying to eat foods with a lower carbon impact, reduce our food waste, and use less plastic in our kitchens, we can't help but wonder: Can palm oil be climate neutral? And how can we shop for better palm oil?

First, some basics.

What Is Palm Oil?

Palm oil is produced from the fruit of the Elaesis Guineensis, or the African oil palm tree. While native to Africa, Indonesia and Malaysia now create roughly 85 percent of palm oil and that production has led to the deforestation of tropical rainforests.

What Is It Used For?

It's extremely versatile; palm oil is used in a variety of packaged goods, including foods like Nutella and breads, beauty products such as lipsticks, household cleaning products, and many other items. It's often used to help give packaged goods a longer shelf life and/or to keep products spreadable. In some parts of the world, palm oil is used as a cooking oil. 

Can Palm Oil be Climate Neutral?

Although palm oil production is harmful to the environment, the crop itself is incredibly efficient and capable of producing large quantities over small areas of land.

"When it's produced right, it brings a lot of benefits," says Monique van Wijnbergen, sustainability and corporate communications director of Natural Habitats Group and spokesperson for Palm Done Right, a campaign partnered with several packaged goods that aims to change the conversation around palm oil and to raise awareness of the importance of switching to organic, sustainable, and ethical palm oil.

"Palm oil is the most efficient vegetable oil crop, improves product quality, and helps millions of farmers and workers generate income and economic progress," she adds. "The solution is to stop using conflict palm oil for our products and demand that manufacturers shift to using palm oil from organic, sustainable, and ethical sources."

Finding sustainable, ethically produced palm oil is not easy, though.

"Palm oil is really complicated," says Austin Whitman, CEO of Climate Neutral, a nonprofit behind the Climate Neutral Certified Label . "Its production deals with land use and the issue of massive deforestation is happening which reduces carbon sequestering. It's really hard to trace if palm oil is being produced where a tropical forest used to be."

Due to those factors, Climate Neutral doesn't currently certify commodity crops such as palm oil.

How to Shop for Products That Use Ethical, Sustainable Palm Oil

If it's challenging for organizations and companies to find sustainable, ethically produced palm oil, it's even harder for consumers. A good place to start is by looking for products that use a sustainable palm oil certification by The Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil, followed by products using organic palm oil.

"Brands that take their palm oil sourcing seriously will indicate that on their consumer pack, indicating it comes from organic or sustainable sources," says van Wijnbergen. "Most brands using palm oil will also communicate about their palm oil sourcing on their websites. Check what they do and whether the palm oil they use comes from traceable sources. You can only be sure that the palm oil they use is done right, if it is traceable to the source."

If you're unsure, you can reach out to the brand and ask questions; only when companies know consumers are paying attention and care will they make changes. When that's not possible, consider purchasing products without palm oil instead.


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