Sustainable Palm Oil – Why we have to make it work

Feb 14, 2019

Palm oil is NOT bad. There we said it. We’ve properly gone and put the cat amongst the pigeons now, haven’t we?

Let us explain. We believe palm oil (which comes from the palm fruit) and palm kernel oil (from the palm seed) are wondrous ingredients worthy of great respect. Nutritious, versatile and efficient.

The African Oil Palm was introduced to Malaysia and Indonesia in the 19th Century. Today these two countries generate an incredible 85% of the world’s palm oil.


Palm oil has helped mankind go about his or her daily life for thousands of years. Today it’s found in around half of all our packaged products, from lipstick to pizza, laundry detergent to chocolate, margarine to shampoo. Production has doubled in the last two decades to cover an area of 27 million hectares – an area larger than New Zealand. It is this growing omni-presence that has put such tremendous pressures on land, people, water, climate and wildlife.


Palm oil has developed a villainous reputation. But it’s not the tree or the fruit or the oil inside that is inherently bad. It is the way in which it has been, and tragically in many instances still is, farmed that can cause dreadful damage and suffering – most notably through palm oil deforestation.


There can be no excuses. Organisations like Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund have evidenced the horrors of the palm oil industry at its worst. Over a period of 25 years from 1990 to 2015 Indonesia lost 24 million hectares of rainforest – an area almost the size of the UK. The destruction of forests in Sumatra and Borneo has removed vital habitat for tigers, elephants, rhinoceroses, orangutans and other endangered species. Whilst the impact of palm oil deforestation is felt most acutely now by local populations and wildlife, the repercussions will be felt globally for centuries to come through its contribution to climate change.


When the global market more than doubles its demand for a natural ingredient like palm oil in just 2 decades, we aren’t just tipping the scales of production. We are knocking them clean off the counter-top. We need to be mindful that in seeking out ways to source natural ingredients more responsibly, we don’t waywardly tip the scales back in the other direction and cause a problem of equal magnitude elsewhere.

Diversifying demand through the sourcing of alternative oils is a sensible counter-measure. Other oils such as coconut, sunflower, rapeseed, almond and soy are also very versatile ingredients.

However, we must be extremely mindful not to create a new and potentially bigger problem in the process. Simply substituting palm oil with alternative oils wholesale would not create a sustainable environment. Palm oil has been so hugely popular not just because of its versatility as an ingredient and its cost efficiency, but because it is land-efficient.

The World Bank estimates that meeting vegetable oil demand in 2020 would require 6.3 million hectares of oil palm plantation. Substituting this demand with soybean would require an additional 42 million hectares - an area about the size of California. Soybean production requires 6 times more energy, 7 times more nitrogen and 14 times more pesticides. 

So yes, alternative oils can play a role in re-establishing balance and harmony in global ingredient sourcing. However, treating them as THE singular solution for environmentally sustainable vegetable oils would be a huge mistake and create new issues that we are less knowledgeable about how to manage.


One viable alternative to palm oil that could provide a step change sustainable future is algae oil. Here are some techy stats that warm our hearts towards microalgae for the future: require less water to grow than standard terrestrial crops; can grow rapidly; oil content is extremely high; require no herbicides or pesticides; give off beneficial by-products which can be used as feed or fertiliser.

In summary, algae take less from the planet, give back more and can be grown highly efficiently in a sustainable environment. We’re on the case so watch this space!


With its staggering omni-presence in our daily lives and its life blood to the Malaysian and Indonesian economies, palm oil is not an industry that can simply be walked away from. In Indonesia and Malaysia, 4.5 million people rely on the palm oil industry for their livelihood. Palm oil is Indonesia’s largest agricultural export and generates $1 billion in export tax.

It is, however, an industry which requires radical and rapid transformation.


Collaboration is a non-negotiable to secure the changes required in the palm oil industry. No individual company can bring about effective and lasting change on its own.

This is the spirit and ambition fuelling the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), founded in 2004. Unilever played a leading role in the set-up of the RSPO and Seventh Generation joined in 2010.


As a business that lives by the ethos of fighting for the tomorrow of the next seven generations, Seventh Generation has long been a leader and pioneer of a more sustainable approach to Palm Oil sourcing. We were the first North American Home Care business to have 100% certified sustainable Palm Oil. We were able to use our smaller scale of business to be more nimble and take a new approach to Palm Oil through the RSPO certified Book & Claim Supply Chain Model. This meant we bought credits from RSPO-certified growers, crushers and independent smallholders.

In the last two years, Seventh Generation has been able to progress to the Palmtrace system which is the RSPO’s traceability system for certified palm oil products.

Now that Seventh Generation is part of the Unilever family of brands, we believe we can go even further in our progressive approach to sustainably sourced palm oil. Following the 2014 New York Declaration on Forests, Unilever committed to sourcing 100% physically certified palm oil and 100% traceability by the end of 2019. Change is happening. We are committed. Check how this will stack up with SVG – will SVG hit this? Also add data for how on track Unilever is on this target.


One of the biggest issues the industry has faced is policy implementation and traceability. Commitment to certified sustainable palm oil has grown over the last decade and a half but this means very little if it does not result in action on the ground.

In 2017, Unilever was able to trace 78% of its palm oil back to the mill it came from. The goal is 100% traceability by the end of 2019. Unilever is working with expert partners like the sustainable farming organisation UTZ to improve the traceability of its palm oil supply chain. In February 2018, Unilever published the names and locations of its 1,400 mills in Indonesia, with the aim of getting others to follow suit. To increase traceability and bring more smallholders into the direct supply chain, Unilever has invested €130 million in building its own palm oil refinery in Northern Sumatra.

Unilever’s aim remains as it was when it helped found the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil in 2004: rapid and radical transformation of the palm oil industry.


For the foreseeable future demand for palm oil is set to continue.

Algae oil offers exciting potential as an oil of the future but isn’t a mass alternative yet. Soy, almond, rapeseed, sunflower and coconut oil offer smaller scale alternatives but not a sustainable means to switch out of palm oil.

Our focus must remain undeterred from securing a fully certified sustainable palm oil supply chain.

The remaining 100 Sumatran rhinoceros  have no patience for laggards. As recently as 2016, a WWF Report stated that 20% of the 94 companies assessed had either stalled or gone backwards in their progress towards a more sustainably sourced palm oil supply. In early 2018, Greenpeace challenged 16 of the leading consumer goods companies to publish which palm oil traders they were buying from but 50% refused.

We are changing. Industry is changing. But the radical shift required needs everyone to act now for the sake of the next seven generations.


Here are 5 things anyone can do to help support the responsible sourcing of palm oil, to better protect our planet, people and wildlife:

1. STAY INFORMED. This is a complex issue. The more people who are aware and informed of the real challenges surrounding palm oil sourcing and the real solutions, the better positioned we are to support the right course of action and champion responsible change.

2. SHOP ETHICALLY. Look for brands displaying the RSPO label which means products have been made with certified sustainable palm oil. Alternatively, brands may display the Green Palm logo demonstrating that their product supports the transition to certified palm oil. Does SVG display these logos?  If not, how do we explain this? Since a change in EU regulation in December 2014, all EU food products must clearly indicate whether they contain palm oil.

green palm and sustainable palm oil labels/logo

3. MAKE YOUR VOICE HEARD!  Check the labels of the products in your home. If you don’t see either of the above labels on the packaging, give them a call or drop them an email or tweet and ask them if they are sourcing their Palm Oil responsibly and what evidence they have to prove this. Many voices will be heard!

4. RESPONSIBLE CONSUMPTION. Contrary as it might sound coming from us, a brand, we want you to buy less stuff. We believe in environmentally sustainable, responsible consumerism. We want you to buy what you need. That’s it. In turn, industry has the responsibility to make only what you demand.

5. EAT LESS BEEF. Don’t worry. You haven’t switched articles. But we thought it was worth mentioning beef, given you have done so well to make it through this article right to the end. We figure you must be pretty passionate about rainforests, amongst other things. Beef is not only the biggest deforestation driver in South America but also globally. So, if you have some energy left, after working out how you can do your bit to champion sustainably sourced palm oil, have a go at Meat-Free Monday or encouraging those around you to do the same. An environmentally sustainable lifestyle means drastically changing the way we consume meat: the UK needs a 90% reduction in red meat consumption to help achieve the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change target of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees. 


1 WWF (2018) Which Everyday Products Contain Palm Oil? Available at: (Accessed: 26 November 2018)

2 Unilever (2018) Transforming the palm oil industry. Available at: (Accessed: 26 November 2018)

3 Greenpeace (2018) Moment of Truth: Time for brands to come clean about their links to forest destruction for palm oil. Available at: (Accessed: 27 November 2018)

4 Unilever (2018) Transforming the palm oil industry. Available at: (Accessed: 27 November 2018)

5 Marian Swain / The Break Through Organisation (2014) Can Palm Oil Deforestation Be Stopped?  Available at: (Accessed: 27 November 2018)

Abishek, Patel & Rajan / NCBI (2014) Algae Oil: A Sustainable Renewable Fuel of Future. Available at: (Accessed: 27 November 2018)

6 Unilever (2018) Transforming the palm oil industry. Available at: (Accessed: 27 November 2018)

7 Marian Swain / The Break Through Organisation (2014) Can Palm Oil Deforestation Be Stopped?  Available at: (Accessed: 27 November 2018)

8 Greenpeace (2018) Moment of Truth: Time for brands to come clean about their links to forest destruction for palm oil. Available at: (Accessed: 27 November 2018)

9 WWF (2016) Palm Oil Buyers Scorecard: Measuring the Progress of Palm Oil Buyers. Available at: (Accessed: 26 November 2018)

10 Union of Concerned Scientists (no date) Beef Cattle. Available at: (Accessed: 27 November 2018)

11 Maria Chiorando / Plant Based News (2018) Western Countries Must Cut Beef Intake By 90% To Avert Climate Crisis. Available at: (Accessed: 28 November 2018).

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Telling stories with the goal of building a consumer revolution that nurtures the health of the next seven generations and beyond.

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