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Tuesday May 14 2019

We need to talk about palm oil - why more companies are avoiding it

Selfridges recently said goodbye to palm oil in their own brand products, here is why we support this move

Anishya Kumar

ANISHYA KUMAR | Founder and Managing Director of Zinda Foods Ltd

We need to talk about palm oil - why more companies are avoiding it

We were delighted to hear Selfridges announce they were completely palm-oil free across their own brand products. For a long time they have been working hard to develop palm-oil-free recipes for their own label products. In fact around a year ago, we were in discussion with them about our palm oil free Airwraps - the only wrap in the UK to contain no palm oil.  So why are large organisations making this move? When over 50% of supermarket products contain palm oil, how should we as consumers make sure the food we buy is not destroying endgangered species?

When Selfridges made their announcement on 7th May 2019 they said that according to the Indonesian Government, an area almost the same size as the UK has been destroyed over the past 20 years. If you imagine a football pitch being destroyed every 25 seconds that's the scope of the problem. Simon Forster, Managing Director of Selfridges said “We believe that until certified palm oil guarantees zero deforestation, our customers should be given the option to buy palm-oil-free products.” 

As consumers this is the heart of the issue - it's all about choice. When given a choice, would anyone really want to buy products which are contributing to the destruction of the critical habitat for many endangered species? Retailers should give us that choice. We all remember Iceland's banned TV campaign about orangutans with the emotional voice over from environmentalist Emma Thompson. Palm oil deforestation also puts the natural homes of tigers, rhinos and elephants at risk too. 

How do we know that the products we buy are palm oil free?

Are all palm oils as bad as each other?

How do we know which palm oils come from sustainable sources and which do not?

This is where many problems lie. Currently the labelling of food products is not at a level of consistency that consumers can trust. Did you know that there are over 200 names for palm oil? From the time the original palm oil kernal or palm oil leaves the plantation to when it ends up in products on supermarket shelves, there are so many complex stages of production this results in the ingredient not necessarily having to be listed as ‘palm oil’.  Fatty alcohol sulphates, glycerine, saturated fatty acid and cocoa butter equivalent are alternative names that palm oil could be listed under. The same labelling confusion is true of trans fats

Professor Roberto Gatti from Purdue University writing in The Independent says: “Our research shows quite unequivocally that, unfortunately, there is no way to produce sustainable palm oil that did not come from deforestation, and that the claims by corporations, certification schemes and non government organisations are simply ‘greenwashing’, useful to continue business as usual,” he added. “No shortcuts: if you use palm oil, certified or not, you are definitely destroying tropical forests.”

However others believe that some palm oil can be produced sustainably.  The Orangutan Alliance says "further work needs to be done to ensure strict social and environmental standards at all stages of palm oil agriculture and processing to ensure palm oil companies continue to grow without harming rainforests or the communities that depends on them."

Because sustainable palm oil and the transparency of the products that contain it is at such a highly fragmented and nascent stage, like Selfridges, we have always believed it will take time to transition fully. Until then we say no to palm oil. We hope more producers, supermarkets and consumers will say no to palm oil too. 

"When given a choice, would anyonereally want to buy products which are contributing to the destruction of many endangered species? Retailers should give us that choice."
Anishya Kumar

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