Is palm oil vegan or simply an environmentalist’s nightmare?

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A controversial product in and of itself, palm oil is dominating conversations surrounding sustainability right now, but is it vegan?

What is palm oil?

Oil palm trees produce fruit, which can be broken down to extract edible oil. This palm oil is a vegetable product, free from animal products and requires no inclusion of animals to be manufactured. Crude palm oil is created when the fleshy red fruits are squeezed and pulped, whereas kernel palm oil comes only from crushing the centre stone.

Oil palms are a specific species of palm tree and were only indigenous to Africa, though they have been artificially introduced to South-East Asia, initially for decorative purposes. But now, 85% of the world’s palm oil is produced in Indonesia and Malaysia alone, with both playing home to extensive palm oil plantations.

Due to the vegetal nature of the fruit it’s extracted from, palm oil is a vegan product, as confirmed by the Vegan Society, but that does not mean that it is an ethical or healthy product. In fact, many vegans actively boycott products that include palm oil, due to the environmentally destructive nature of the industry.

What is palm oil used in?

palm oil ethicalIt would be far easier to list what it is not included in, as it features in basically everything, or it did, until the unsustainable nature of the industry came under scrutiny. It is estimated that close to 50% of all pre-packaged products in UK supermarkets contain palm oil, as well as personal hygiene items and even specifically vegan products, such as plant-based meats and cruelty-free beauty products.

Prepare to be shocked when you start reading your shopping labels a little more carefully because you’ll find it in everything. Even ice cream.

How is palm oil vegan but boycotted?

Many vegans choose to avoid palm oil because the industry itself is so destructive. Producers often have a devil-may-care attitude in the face of environmental concerns and the negative impact of growing plantations in huge volumes with no regard for the native wildlife being evicted. It is also a major contributor to global deforestation and has led to the reduction or elimination of key natural habitats for endangered species, including orangutans.

In addition to animal-based concerns, labour issues, exploitation and enormous greenhouse emissions are also key side effects of palm oil production, each of which many producers fail to address or rectify, which is unfortunate, as there are alternatives to greed-driven manufacturing methodologies.

Don’t miss our report on the Sumatran Orangutan Society’s reforestation efforts.

Do vegans have to avoid it?

palm oil sustainabilityNo. This is very much a personal decision to make. In essence, the oil is absolutely vegan. It is made exclusively from tree fruit and, regardless of the wider consequences of production, the product itself contains no animal derivatives, so vegans are free to eat it and use products containing it.

There are, however, companies seeking to improve the footprint and ethics of the industry, which would allow even the most stringent ethical and environmentally driven vegans to pick up palm items without guilt.

Read more about the bad reputation palm oil has garnered.

Can palm oil be sustainable?

Yes, but this is going to be a long journey. Back in 2004, the Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil, or RSPO, was founded, with a mandate in place to improve the production standards and environmental footprint of the industry. It also buys in most of the sustainably produced product globally to allow future buyers easy access to certified oil. This means that middle manufacturers, such as peanut butter companies, can highlight that they have aligned with an ethical operation, use only certified sustainable palm oil and can shirk off the questionable ethics that this ingredient now alludes to.

Sustainable plantations are smaller, manned by adult individuals earning a living wage and have sought to address native wildlife before being grown. Naturally, this means that any oil produced is more expensive, but a consumer-driven shift for ethical products will bring down the price organically and push less morally motivated producers to switch their production methods as well. We all know that big change has to start with small steps, and if who we buy our nut butters from can make a global impact, it’s easy to understand why a lot of vegans boycott standard palm oil.

Find out which peanut butter companies take a stance on palm oil in our review of the UK’s best.

What can we do in the UK?

roundtable on sustainable palm oilUK vegans rejoice, because we have actually been making great strides since 2012, when the government identified we were directly contributing to the demand for unethical palm oil, and in a big way. It was announced that, as a country, we would use only sustainably sourced oil in our products and, as of 2016, we were at 75%. If we continue to push for ethical choices, with the way we shop, our demand will continue to create a case for sustainable sourcing and that 100% milestone won’t be out of reach for much longer.

Though it is not always possible to avoid palm products altogether, take solace in the fact that even if the production methods are questionable, the oil itself is vegan. That’s a positive step forward and one of many that can lead to a more environmentally responsible lifestyle.

Amy Buxton
Amy Buxton
Amy is a committed ethical vegan, raising a next generation compassionate human with her husband and their beloved dog, Boo. A freelance writer with a background in PR, she decided to use the COVID lockdown period to refocus her client base and has come to The Vegan Review as a senior writer and editor, before moving into her external content director role. "What we should be doing is working at the job of life itself" is Amy's mantra, courtesy of Tom from The Good Life.