Sustainability and Palm Oil, a conversation with WWF

Our founder Niomi Smart chats to Emma Keller of WWF about the myths and questions surrounding palm oil and its production. Carry on scrolling to read the full interview and find out what we can do as consumers and how we can aid sustainable palm oil consumption.


Niomi: Thank You so much for joining me today!

Emma: You’re welcome, thank you for having us.

Niomi: I’m really excited for this conversation, we’re obviously going to be talking all about palm oil. And I feel like there are a lot of misconceptions around palm oil.

Emma: I’m Emma Keller and I’m head of food commodities at WWF UK. What that means is I lead a team who are working on trying to tackle the issues of our food system. So the food system is singly one of the biggest drivers of bio diversity loss globally.

What we’re really trying to do is change the system so it can benefit people and planet. We do lots of exciting things from working with companies through to trying to influence government policy, all to make our food system better for the environment.

Niomi: I think maybe we should start with what is palm oil?

Emma: Many people will have heard of palm oil and instantly recoil because it has got quite a bad name in the industry, but let's start with what it is. Palm oil is an edible vegetable oil, it comes from the fruit of oil palm trees. The scientific name for those is Elaeis guineensis, which is a particular species of this oil palm crop. There are two types of oil which can be produced. Crude palm oil which comes from squeezing the fleshy bit of the fruit that grows on this tree, and then palm kernel oil that comes from crushing the kernel or stone that’s in the middle of the fruit, it’s this palm kernel oil that’s mostly used in the beauty industry. 

Why do we use so much of this oil that is coming from a fruit? Well it’s incredibly versatile, it has lots of different properties and functions that make it really useful and therefore make it so widely used.

Niomi: I am really excited to discuss a bit more about how palm oil isn’t always necessarily bad. I would love to know what is the difference between good and bad production of palm oil?

Emma: So, palm oil isn’t the problem itself, it’s just a vegetable oil that is very useful. The problem is how it’s planted, and particularly where it’s planted. Like I said, it’s got a really bad name in the industry and there’s a really good reason for that. Palm oil has been, and continues to be, a major cause of deforestation of some of our most precious places in the world - the forests of Indonesia and Malaysia etc, where palm oil is threatening the survival of already endangered animals like the orangutang, the Pygmy elephants and the Sumatran rhino just to name a few. At the same time by destroying this forest we’re often also destroying carbon rich peat soils. These are soils which are really dark in colour and really deep that have formed over hundreds and thousands of years and are storing huge amounts of carbon. When we clear them we obviously release all of this carbon into the atmosphere, which can contribute to climate change. There’s also some issues in the palm oil sector with exploitation of workers and labour. These are major serious issues that the palm oil sector needs to step up and address, because it doesn’t have to be this way.

So, we know that palm oil can be produced more sustainably. Around 2004 there was something called the round table on sustainable palm oil that was formed. Which was brought together in response to increasing concerns of the impacts that palm oil was having on the environment. This was a group of companies and MGOs, including WWF, that came together to design what a standard for good palm oil production would look like. Today that standard makes sure that palm oil is produced with no deforestation, no conversion of peat soils and no exploitation of labour. So, what we need is the sector now to step up and embrace that standard and look to go beyond it because our SPO isn’t going to solve all of our problems, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction.

Niomi: What is it exactly about palm oil itself that makes it really damaging to the environment? You’ve already mentioned it’s a lot about the space that it takes up and damaging the environment and the wildlife as well - particularly orangutangs, that seems to be what we hear about a lot which is absolutely heart breaking. If we just switched from palm oil production to another type of oil production would the impact be the same or is there something more specific about palm oil itself that is damaging?

Emma: So, the big problem with palm oil is that it grows really, really well in the tropical belt of the globe, in areas that are also really high in rainforest so they just happen to grow well in the same place. Because palm oil has been really lucrative, there’s lots of money to be made for lots of different people. It’s meant that we’ve converted that rainforest for palm oil production and that’s the main issue that we’re trying to stop because we know that doesn’t have to continue. Palm oil is incredibly efficient, if we were to stop using palm oil today and switch to other vegetable oils like soy bean, cotton seed oil or rape seed oil we could need up to nine times the amount of land to get the same amount of oil that we get from palm oil. Therefore, stopping palm oil production is not going to solve our problem - it just shifts the problem elsewhere and convert more land and could do more damage to biodiversity not less. So, we know now there’s enough land in the world to continue to producing palm oil without chopping any more trees down. What we need to do is redirect future palm oil production to already degraded or converted land and keep it away from forest or natural vegetation. Stopping palm oil production today would send millions of people into poverty. People who are dependent on palm oil for their livelihood to send their kids to school to feed their families etc. So, we really do need to find a better way to produce it sustainably for all of us.

Niomi: I would love to hear a bit more about the initiatives that WWF have going on to prioritise improving this situation. 

Emma: WWF works with different actors across the whole palm oil supply chain. From producers on the ground who are really in the thick of it producing the palm oil using their land to look after their families, through to companies that process, trade, manufacture and sell products containing palm oil. We also work with financiers, so big banks and investment funds, through to governments to ensure that governments are putting in policies that are favourable for more sustainable palm oil production. In the UK at the moment we’re actually supporting the government with a potentially ground-breaking new law on due diligence, which would require companies to measure, track, assess and report on what they’re doing to tackle deforestation in their supply chains. So, lots of work to be done. There’s huge progress that has been made but we’re certainly not at the end of the journey, there’s a lot more that needs to be done.

Niomi: That’s brilliant that there are already some initiatives in place. That really ties in with my next question, which is what can small businesses do to cooperate with these initiatives and make sure that if they are using palm oil, it’s the most sustainable options? Personally, I own a small business in the beauty industry and it is actually quite hard to navigate around this area so I don’t know if you have any advice for small businesses and how we can cooperate with this?

Emma: WWF focus has often been on the large businesses, so the big players with huge volumes of palm oil. But we’ve all got a role to play and small business owners can absolutely play a role. Some of the key things I would suggest could be just asking questions. Ask your suppliers about the ingredients they’re providing you - just starting to ask them, ‘are they sustainably certified by credible schemes like the RSPO’, ‘are they coming from areas that they know where they’re coming from in the world’. And if not, can your suppliers start to take steps to make sure it is deforestation free and sustainable. What that can do is send a strong signal that these are concerns and that these are actions that companies need to take on.  Of course, as a small business owner you have an important role to play in educating your consumers. Consumers that are probably more engaged than most because they are seeking out unique and cool products. And so, they want to know that they are being produced with sustainable ingredients. So, there’s a big role to play with educating your customers as well.

Niomi: Absolutely, I’m incredibly fortunate that I’ve got a great relationship with the suppliers, so we know exactly where everything has been sourced from. Since day one that has been the most important aspect of developing formulas and the suppliers have good relationships with the RSPO as well which is great. 

My last question is about the wider beauty industry. What do you feel like are the wider environmental issues within the beauty industry?

Emma: The beauty industry is huge. In the UK alone it contributes over 28 billion to our economy so whilst being a huge contributor, it also has a really important role to play in sustainability. I think the two key environmental issues that the beauty industry can step up and take responsibility on is its ingredients. Ensuring they’re sustainably sourced, coming from well managed farms, looking after their farm workers etc. The second of course is around packaging. There’s huge amounts of plastic and other types of packaging used in the beauty industry and while there’s work underway to ensure that a lot of that packaging is either from recycled material or is recyclable, we know actually that research is showing us that over half of us brits in the UK don’t recycle our bathroom products because they’re inconvenient to do so. Therefore, these products are finding their way into landfill rather than being given a second life. The beauty industry can do more to help educate consumers about what can be put into recycling, help make their packaging eco-friendlier and recyclable etc. I think they’re some of the big issues for the beauty industry at the moment.

Niomi: I completely agree with everything you’ve just said. Whether you’re a consumer, work for a brand, or own a brand we all play a part. It all kind of rests on our shoulders and I think as an individual you feel like you can’t do anything but actually every single decision you make, whether that’s deciding what brand to buy from, or what waste you consume. All of which contributes and collectively I think we can all make a difference - so completely agree with everything you’ve said. 

Emma: We know small actions can add up to a big difference so we definitely all as consumers need to play our part. 

Niomi: Absolutely they can shape the future. Thank you so much, it’s been an absolute pleasure speaking with you and I really appreciate all of the amazing information you’ve provided today.