Are The Contents Of Your Cupboards Harming The World? Palm Oil Uncovered...

Are The Contents Of Your Cupboards Harming The World? Palm Oil Uncovered...

Posted by Matthew Prior on Nov 15, 2017

What is your morning routine? Maybe you have a shower using your preferred shampoo and shower gel, then proceed to have your breakfast of cereal or perhaps some buttery toast – you may even use organic products. After breakfast, you'll need to clear up and could potentially use the multi-surface cleaning spray you picked up from the supermarket last week to do this. But what does your morning routine have to do with palm oil you ask, and why is this a bad thing? As you read through this article, it will soon become obvious exactly why we began with asking you these questions…

palm oil

What is Palm oil?

Palm oil is a vegetable oil, and is the most widely used of its kind in the world. Oil palms grow in tropical climates with plenty of water, which is why they thrive best in the rainforest. explain that “palm oil is so massively farmed because it produces up to 10 times more oil per unit area than soya beans, rapeseed or sunflowers”. It is cheap to buy, under colossal global demand, and statistically producing economic results; palm oil is Indonesia’s most valuable agricultural export, accounting for 11% of the country’s total export earnings.

So what's the issue?

Practices undertaken to produce palm oil poses one of the biggest threats to the preservation of the orangutan species in particular, along with countless other endangered animals; the thousands of hectares that plantations require is one of the leading causes of the mass destruction of the Indonesian and Malaysian rainforests. The universal demand for this product is causing huge habitat loss, leaving animals ever more vulnerable to threats from human activity. Additionally, clearing areas of the rainforest in order to cultivate the vegetable oil is having an equally detrimental effect upon our environment.

orangutan in the wild

There are many compelling reasons, other than for the sake of the rainforest, that you simply wouldn’t want to use palm oil. Fortunately, there are many resources out there that provide comprehensive lists of palm oil free alternatives, which we will touch upon further along in this article, so keep on reading to discover more.

But Why Should You Bother Changing?

Hidden behind this huge industry, and the apparent economic benefits it reaps for businesses and consumers around the world, is a plethora of sinister facts and statistics that you may have been previously unaware of, so let's find out more.

50% of the packaged foods, baked goods, cosmetic and cleaning products that can be found on supermarket shelves contain palm oil, or palm kernel oil; these include bread, cookies, chocolate, and even milk (information from Plus, this ingredient causes creaminess and foaminess in cosmetic products such as shampoos and moisturisers too.

Increasingly, palm oil is being used as a ‘biofuel’, but ironically, the consequences of farming this product have proven to, and continue to be highly destructive to our environment.

The Dark Facts About Palm Oil That Aren't Always Talked About

The palm oil industry has many negative effects upon a variety of sectors which include: the environment, health, and politics. We have laid out the six most shocking facts we discovered about this vegetable oil, which we hope will resonate with our readers and encourage them to make a change.

Fact 1: The Current Rate Of Deforestation Could See The Complete Destruction Of The Rainforest


Malaysia and Indonesia source between 80-90% of the world’s palm oil and the plantations needed to produce the oil are very large because “every oil palm that is planted needs over 3 meters diameter clear around each tree.” Furthermore, it is estimated that worldwide, an area of rainforest the size of around 300 football pitches is cleared every hour. In light of this, Indonesia and Malaysia alone could potentially see the complete eradication of their rainforests in just a matter of years.

For many, this is something that could occur in their lifetime but the worrying thing is, people still do not fully understand what this means - not just for animals, but for the entire world.

Rainforests provide around 28% of the world's oxygen, so how do world leaders propose we offset nearly a third of our oxygen once all the trees have gone? Could it be, that people continue the cycle of the palm oil industry (whilst turning a blind eye to the ramifications of this) because the current state of the world is not quite yet reflecting the extent of the damage humans continue to make to it? Despite scientific evidence that the polar caps are melting and orangutan populations are rapidly declining, there are no consequences that directly affect humans right here and now.

However, awareness is being brought to the attention of the public, with revolutionary footage from the likes of the David Attenborough series' (Planet Earth, Life, Blue Planet), and world renowned conservationist, Jane Goodall, but there is always more that must be done. What's more, it appears that a lack of oxygen is not the only repercussion of the palm oil industry.

Fact 2: The Global Demand For Palm Oil Could See Orangutans Extinct Within The Next Decade

baby orangutans

The mass deforestation that has been undertaken to meet the insatiable demand for palm oil, has resulted in a 50% decline in the entire orangutan population in just 10 years. As many regular Great Projects followers will already know, this animal is classified as critically endangered by WWF yet the ravenous mouths of the industry continue to be fed.

Those of us who do not directly work on or around palm oil plantations do not witness the effects of the palm oil industry on an orangutan in the wild. However, for these great apes, the daily challenge of battling bullets and avoiding snare traps, all in a desperate search for food and shelter, is very real.

baby orangutan

Photo Credit: Bornean Orangutan Survival Foundation/ Orangutan Outreach As Featured On Huffington Post.

Here you can read the tale of ‘Kesi’, an infant orangutan whose hand was savagely hacked off by palm oil workers. Baby orangutans grip strongly on the hair on their mother's stomach and ride with them through the rainforest. Kesi’s rescuers believe she and her mother were driven out of their forest home when it was being cleared for palm plantations. Disorientated, and too weak to climb, they assume Kesi’s mother was walking along the floor in search for food when she crossed paths with the humans that would ultimately kill her. Kesi’s hand was most likely maimed in an attempt to detach her grip from her mother.

Orangutans suffer massively at the hands of deforestation as their survival is totally dependent on the wellbeing of the rainforest; without a place to live, and sources of food, they don’t have much hope. If deforestation continues to occur at its current rate, experts such as Alan Knight, CEO of International Animal Rescue, estimate that the entire population of wild orangutans could be extinct within the next 25 years.

Fact 3: Palm Oil Is High In Saturated Fats

palm iil

We eat many foods that contain palm oil, but often we have no idea we are doing so. claim “palm oil is often disguised, hidden behind many different ingredient names you probably don’t recognise”, and they have provided a list of the ingredients palm oil can often be disguised under, so read up to know just what you’re buying. Even organic foods rely heavily on the vegetable oil, so therefore, it is incredibly difficult to know what products contain the ingredient and those that do not.

Palm oil is also high in saturated fats, and one teaspoon contains around 55% of the recommended daily intake of saturated fat, claim It is no secret that the west is also battling an obesity issue; The World Health Organisation claim that in 2016 "1.9 billion" people were overweight, "650 million" of which were obese. It isn't healthy for us, or our planet, and yet palm oil is still relentlessly farmed worldwide.

Fact 4: The Industry Has Conflicted With Indigenous Communities

palm oil plantations

This controversial (to say the least) industry is also having an effect on the indigenous communities in the areas which are being cleared for palm plantations. state “the establishment of palm oil plantations is often promoted as a way of bringing development to poor rural regions of Borneo and Sumatra.” While it does provide employment to people in these areas, the industry has also had some tragic effects on them too.

The United States rank the palm oil industry as one of the worst for forced and child labour, where children are allegedly made to “carry large loads of heavy fruit, weed fields, and spend hours every day bent over collecting fruit from the plantation floor.” It is also stated by that the children receive little or no pay for their labour. In addition to this, the Indonesian government claim that "thousands of communities are involved in active or latent conflicts with companies, the state and each other" consequent to the industry.

palm oil fruits

An article on Huffington Post explains that previously self-sufficient communities who were heavily reliant on the forests are now reduced to ‘being laborers in their own land’ and this can be seriously detrimental to their ability to survive.

The article quotes Tomasz Johnson, forest campaigner at the Environmental Investigation Agency:

"They go from being resilient and food-secure, with their own resources, to being totally reliant on low-paid wage labour in plantations. Locals are seemingly left with no choice but to become workers within the palm oil industry, and are left “incredibly vulnerable to the world market price of palm oil, which they have no control over.”

Fact 5: Clearing Forests For Palm Plantations Is Detrimental To Our Climate And Co2 Emissions

palm oil plantation

Palm plantations are cultivated on peat lands, which are often cleared by burning these areas away. The smoke from the fires pollutes the air, which contributes to climate change. In addition, deforestation can cause soil erosion, which effects water, biodiversity and people, thus further contributing to environmental decline. You can find out more about the environmental consequences of clearing land for palm oil plantations here.

Peat lands also contain 10 times more carbon than mineral soil, so the draining, burning and farming of these lands has an effect on the environment that is 10 times more detrimental than traditional farming soil. claim that “Nine of the 10 warmest Julys on record have occurred during the 21st century (since 2005)” and that “the average land and ocean temperature for July 2017 was the second highest for the month at 0.83 degrees (1.49 degrees F) above the 20th century average of 15.8 degrees Celsius (60.4 degrees F.)”

It's difficult to deny that palm oil production has contributed to these statistics when you consider that Indonesia is now “the world’s third largest emitter of greenhouse gases” and sources the majority of palm oil worldwide.

greenhouse gases indonesia

Fact 6: Animals Are Left Exposed, Leaving Them Vulnerable To Poachers And Palm Workers

The road networks that are constructed to give workers and their necessary equipment access to palm oil clearings, provide poachers with an easy way to encounter vulnerable wildlife left exposed without food and shelter. When these encounters occur, the story is not always a pleasant one.

baby orangutan claim that “wildlife such as orangutans have been found buried alive killed from machete attacks, guns and other weaponry.” Other species which are left extremely vulnerable include, tigers, rhinos, pygmy elephants, sun bears and proboscis monkeys.

This devastating reality continues to occur for orangutans, and has been occurring for a long time. Here you can read the story of Rickina, another baby orangutan rescued by IAR, who upon her rescue had a machete wound to her head which they believe, once again was sustained during her mother's demise. Ultimately, palm oil demand is decimating some of Borneo's incredible wildlife.

What Do The Experts Say?

Kate Helliwell is the amazing project coordinator at the Samboja Lestari Orangutan Volunteer Project and has been with us for 2 years. Although, she has been working with primates for years, and prior to moving to Borneo, she even worked with primates in Spain.

She has witnessed first hand the effects of palm oil on orangutans and the surrounding environment, and here's what she had to say about palm oil:

"Palm oil production is the largest factor affecting the destruction of primary rainforest in Borneo. Rainforests are deforested to plant the palm oil plantations. Orangutans (our second closest living relative) along with the whole diverse variety of plants and animals like sun bears who call the forest their home are displaced. They have no food, no shelter, and are forced to find food in the plantations.

"In many cases they are seen as pests and killed, with any babies then sold as pets. The lucky ones may get confiscated and are saved by a small number of sanctuaries such as Bos Foundation who try to rehabilitate them. However, these sanctuaries are overflowing with hundreds of orangutans. In many areas here in Indonesia, these plantations have replaced forest span for as far as the eye can see, and can take hours to drive through.

"Over the last 70 years, the expansion of these plantations have been devastating to the environment. Not only for species extinction but also the amount of CO2 released into the atmosphere when rainforests are destroyed. This overall means that we are not only negatively impacting the survival of other species, but also our own in the process.

"The fact is that we in the western world consume half the palm oil that is made in Indonesia. This is the major cause of habitat loss here and could lead to the extinction of our second closest relative among other species. I think its fair to say that we all have a responsibility to cut down on our individual palm oil consumption. Not everybody can completely cut out palm oil but we can all reduce the amount we eat and use."

Is there hope on the horizon for sustainable palm oil production? Read on to find out.

The RSPO - Is There Hope For A New Dawn For Palm Oil?


There are some measures that have been put in place to try and create a sustainable palm oil industry, but even this has ignited controversy.

Major consumers and producers of the product established the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). This does not rule out the clearing of rainforests, but marks areas of “high conservation value” as off-limits to farm upon.

Despite the RSPO having their own policy of human-rights and general principles that must be complied with, people do not necessarily always conform. Farmers and indigenous people have allegedly been removed from their lands and arrested upon resistance, and issues such as these have “raised questions over the credibility of the industry’s largest certification scheme in investigating member violations” (find out more at According the same site, one of the organisation’s leading companies has been involved with roughly 100 human rights violations in Indonesia alone, but has not been punished adequately.


What’s more, according to, just a mere 35% of palm growers, who claim to be members of the RSPO “are actually certified.” Consequently, the remaining 65% pay to be members of the RSPO, “but have taken no action to adhere to the RSPO guidelines in their growing practises [sic].” As a result, more than half of RSPO members could potentially be practicing within the industry using unsustainable measures, all of which as we have discussed, have devastating reverberations on our planet.

Despite some campaigns dating back more than 10 years, the ethics of some who practice within the field do not seem to be recognised as an area of concern by those who have the power to make a change. The concept, the idea of the RSPO could be revolutionary for the way the industry operates by broadly reducing deforestation and furthermore the detriment that poses to orangutans. Unfortunately however, the evidence strongly suggests that the RSPO need to regulate the industry more strictly, but when such an industry is so astronomical in its trade, it will take a long time to close the loopholes some companies are utilising. Therefore, the work always starts at home, so if this information has opened your eyes to how humans (consciously or unknowingly) are aiding the rapid decline of the planet, then check out these links to find great resources for palm oil free products.

Palm Oil Free Alternatives

palm oil free alternatives

While it may be difficult to find a brand that executes sustainable palm oil practices, there are organisations out there that do not include the oil whatsoever. To give you a quick snapshot, here are some brands that are certified palm oil free

For many more brands that do not use the vegetable oil, check out Rainforest Foundation UK’s Palm Oil Guide – a comprehensive list of products that are known to contain palm oil, and those that do not.

Bornean Orangutan Survival Australia have also made a list of their own.

cute baby orangutans

Humans place a great deal of power upon money, and understandably for many, cash rules everything around them. While it may be more expensive, and ultimately less profitable to use palm oil alternatives such as soya and rapeseed, we need to understand, the Earth is much more powerful than any entity that inhabits it. Soon enough, the damage will be so far gone, that no amount of money will be able to fix it, and the health of humans, animals and our planet will suffer. When will the light bulb moment occur? When will we recognise that we need to make a change? What is extremely clear from the evidence laid out above, is that this change needs to happen now.

We urge you to ask yourself this, what sort of world do you want your grandchildren, and their children, to live in? Do you want there to be a world for them to explore at all?

Orangutans are rapidly on their way to becoming a beautiful, but distant memory. They, just like so many other species affected by the palm oil industry, are key components to the way the environment functions, as are humans. The ecosystem will cease to stand without each aspect making its own contribution harmoniously. Those who take their conservation efforts that step further by booking to volunteer with Bornean orangutans are incredible, but we know this is not always possible, so stocking up on palm oil free products is definitely an excellent starting point.

One online user posted a comment to, and it truly resonated with us here at The Great Projects. So, we leave you with this;

“There can be no denying that we humans are devastating the wildlife of the world. Somewhere in the midst of our rapacious desires we need to find a place of balance.”

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Jen commented 4 months ago
Thank you for this educational article. I agree wholeheartedly but am often asked whether palm oil replacements would require more land than palm oil. What are the alternative ingredients to palm oil and would they require more forest clearing, or, would existing arable land be utilised instead?

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