Palm 101

You’ve probably heard the horror stories about palm oil:  orphaned orangutans, rainforests destruction, smoldering fires that pollute the air, displaced communities and exploitation of workers.

Thankfully, that’s not all there is to the tale.


As the demand for palm oil has grown over the past several decades—mostly in Indonesia and Malaysia, which now produce roughly 85% of palm oil worldwide—the industry evolved in a way that favored large corporations, huge plantations and a focus on profit, irrespective of ecological, cultural or social impacts.

There’s another, happier story that has yet to be told. One where farmers are empowered and communities thrive. One where animals and people are well. One where the land flourishes with diversity. Let’s start here …

Palm oil is one of the most widely used vegetable oils in the world. It can be found in everything from food and household products to biofuels and cosmetics. However, the production of palm oil has been linked to environmental and social issues such as deforestation, habitat destruction, and human rights abuses. To address these concerns, the palm oil industry has established various sustainability initiatives, certifications, and standards to ensure that palm oil is produced responsibly and sustainably. These efforts include

Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO): This is a certification program that sets environmental and social criteria for palm oil production. RSPO-certified palm oil is produced without deforestation, on peatland, or by exploiting workers.

Palm Done Right (PDR): This is a sustainable palm oil initiative that goes beyond RSPO standards to promote regenerative agriculture practices. PDR seeks to protect the environment and promote the well-being of small farmers and their communities.

Sustainable Palm Oil Manifesto (SPOM): This is a joint commitment by major companies in the palm oil industry to produce and source palm oil sustainably. Signatories of the manifesto pledge to support RSPO and other sustainability initiatives. Consumers can also play a role in promoting sustainable palm oil by choosing products that are certified by RSPO, PDR, or other sustainability initiatives. By supporting sustainable palm oil, we can help protect the environment and support the livelihoods of small farmers and their communities.

Palm oil is versatile and extracted from the fruit of the oil palm tree. It is the most commonly used vegetable oil in the world, accounting for more than 30% of global vegetable oil production. Its popularity is due to its many beneficial properties, such as its high yield, long shelf life, and low cost. However, the production of palm oil has been linked to several environmental and social issues. The clearing of land for oil palm plantations has led to deforestation and habitat destruction, which in turn has threatened the survival of endangered species like orangutans and Sumatran tigers. In addition, the use of pesticides and fertilizers in palm oil production has caused pollution and soil degradation. The exploitation of workers, including child labor, is also a concern in some areas where palm oil is produced. To address these issues, the palm oil industry has taken steps to promote sustainable and responsible palm oil production.

One of the most significant initiatives is the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), which was established in 2004. The RSPO is a certificate program that sets environmental and social criteria for palm oil production. To be certified, palm oil producers must adhere to strict standards that prohibit deforestation, the destruction of high conservation value areas, and the exploitation of workers.

Another initiative is Palm Done Right (PDR), which goes beyond RSPO standards to promote regenerative agriculture practices. PDR seeks to protect the atmosphere and promote the well-being of small farmers and their communities. PDR-certified palm oil is produced using farming practices that help to enhance soil health, conserve water, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

In addition to RSPO and PDR, there are several other sustainability initiatives and certifications for palm oil, including the International Sustainability and Carbon Certification (ISCC), the Indonesian Sustainable Palm Oil (ISPO), and the Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO). Consumers can play a role in promoting sustainable palm oil by choosing products that are certified by RSPO, PDR, or other sustainability initiatives. Palm oil is a widely used vegetable oil that has many different applications in the food, cosmetic, and biofuel industries.

While its production has been linked to environmental and social issues, palm oil is also known for its potential health benefits when consumed in moderation. One of the primary uses of palm oil is in the food industry. It is a common ingredient in a wide variety of products, including baked goods, snacks, and processed foods.

Palm oil has a high smoke point, making it a popular choice for frying and cooking at high temperatures. It is also used as a substitute for partially hydrogenated oils, which have been linked to an increased risk of heart disease. In addition to its culinary uses, palm oil is also used in cosmetics and personal care products. It is commonly found in soaps, lotions, and shampoos, as it is a natural emollient that helps to moisturize and protect the skin. When consumed in moderation, palm oil may also offer several potential health benefits. It is a rich source of antioxidants, including beta-carotene and tocotrienols, which can help to protect against cell damage and oxidative stress.

Tocotrienols, in particular, have been shown to have anti-inflammatory and cholesterol-lowering properties, which may help to reduce the risk of heart disease. Palm oil also contains a balanced ratio of saturated and unsaturated fats, which may help to improve cholesterol levels and reduce the risk of heart disease.

While saturated fat has been linked to an increased risk of heart disease in some studies, the specific types of saturated fat found in palm oil (known as palmitic and stearic acid) do not appear to have the same negative effects on cholesterol levels as other types of saturated fat. Overall, palm oil is an adaptable and widely used vegetable oil that has many different applications in the food, cosmetic, and biofuel industries. While its production has been linked to environmental and social issues, palm oil may also offer several potential health benefits when consumed in moderation.

When done right, it’s also the highest yielding vegetable oil on the planet, producing 5-10 times more oil per acre compared to other commodity oils like soybean or Canola.

Sustainable palm oil

Oil palms produce more oil per hectare than any other oil source on the planet.

So while palm oil is an inherently sustainable, nutrient-dense oil, the way in which most palm oil is being produced has wreaked havoc on habitats, leading to the demise of critically-endangered species such as the Sumatran tiger, the Asian rhinoceros and the Sumatran Orangutan.

The large-scale destruction of native habitats for humans, animals and plants; the burning of carbon-rich soils; and unnatural growing practices focused on synthetic fertilizers and chemical herbicides and pesticides has caused massive release of greenhouse gasses (GHG), contributing to global warming. Rampant, smoldering fires have also exposed entire regions to high levels of smoke and haze.

But there is a way to grow palm for good … good for animalsfarmers, the environmentcommunities and you.

The first step toward a solution started with RSPO, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil. The RSPO was founded in 2004 in response to the rampant destruction by palm done wrong. Stakeholders from seven sectors of the palm oil industry—from producers to consumer goods manufacturers to non-governmental organizations (NGOs)—came together to develop a set of standards that they believed would set the global supply chain of palm oil on the path to sustainability.

RSPO offers four levels of certification with varying degrees of traceability.

Sustainable Palm Oil

The values driving Palm Done Right go above and beyond the highest certifications.

Of these, only the Identity Preserved level is fully traceable, which means full accountability at each step of the process. Within the past decade, though, a handful of companies have chosen to go beyond RSPO Identity Preserved to create truly sustainable, organic, fair trade palm oil traceable throughout the supply chain.

Their goal: to ensure wellbeing of farmers, environment, communities and consumers.

Natural Habitats—one of the companies who has gone beyond the certifications—thought the time was right to spearhead a campaign to get the word out about the positive impacts of palm when it’s grown the right way.

It’s what we call Palm Done Right.

Find out more about what Palm Done Right means for animalsfarmerscommunities, the environment and your health. And read on for what happens when palm is grown for good.

Palm Done Right isn’t just a philosophy, it’s a way of doing business. That means standards and guidelines need to be in place to make sure palm is always done right … not just sometimes.

That’s where third-party certifications come in. The USDA’s and the European Union’s Organic certification programs, the Fair For Life fair trade standard*, and Rainforest Alliance certification provide clear guidelines for farmers and producers to follow. They involve annual, independent—and stringent—audits to hold all accountable, so that when you as the consumer see these labels, you know a company is walking the talk.

There is a huge difference between palm done wrong and Palm Done Right—a big one—and you can be a part of the change.

*Extranatu in Ecuador, owned by Natural Habitats, is a Fair For Life certified palm oil operation. Its supplying oil palm growers are working according to the Fair For Life standard.

How is Palm Done Right grown?

Palm Done Right Farmers grow oil palms according to organic practices, either by reconditioning degraded land—often from old growth forest that had been clear cut and converted into pasture or crop lands—or by transitioning existing, conventional palm farms to organic.

palm trees

Oil palm trees produce year round, with a life span of up to 40 years.

Oil palms are unique plants. They produce palm fruits for up to 40 years, which makes them less of a burden on the soil than annual crops that are replanted year after year, and they bear fruit year round, which means a steady source of income for small farmers. Palm Done Right farmers nurture the soil with organic methods like leguminous cover crops (which fix nitrogen in the soil naturally), mulching and application of compost, which also increases palm fruit yields.

How is Palm Done Right harvested?

Fresh fruit bunches ripen in 20 weeks, with the amount of oil from the yield increasing by 200 fold in the last week, meaning farmers need to monitor daily for ripe fruit. When the fruit is ripe, workers harvest by hand either by using a scythe fit on a long pole or by shimmying up the tree and using a machete to cut down the bunches.

palm plantation

Palm Done Right is harvested by hand using traditional methods.

Once the bunches are harvested, the farmers cart them to the mill (or the pick up point for the mill), often using donkeys, horses or oxen.

palm plantation

Palm Done Right favors animal transport where possible to cut down on fossil fuels.

How is Palm Done Right milled?

palm oil plantation

Fresh Fruit Bunches (FFBs) ready to be steamed.

  1. When the fresh fruit bunches reach the mill, they are transferred to a large container with pressurized steam which deactivates the enzyme that causes the oil to go rancid, and loosens the fruit from the bunch.
  2. Next, the bunches go into a large drum tumbler. The fruit falls through openings in the container, and the empty bunches are recycled as compost.
  3. The fruit then goes into a low-speed steam “digester” press that loosens the oil from the pulp, and then into a hydraulic press. At that point, the liquid is a mixture of oil, water, fiber and kernels.
  4. That mixture goes onto a vibrating screen to separate out the solids. Of the solids, kernels are gathered for a separate pressing, and the fiber is recycled as fuel for the steamers.
  5. The liquid goes to a clarifying tank that uses centrifugal force to separate water from oil.

One of the negative side effects of palm processing is that the wastewater from the purification step—because it’s highly concentrated organic matter—can contaminate water sources.

Part of Palm Done Right is making sure that doesn’t happen, by lining holding pools, or putting the wastewater through a “biodigester” that separates water—which is then safe to return to rivers or use as irrigation—and compostable organic matter.

aerated pools

Lined, aerated pools help turn wastewater into water suitable for irrigation or streams.

From there, the oil is transported to a refinery for further processing, depending on needs of the end product.

But Palm Done Right goes beyond just the production of palm oil. Palm Done Right is about nurturing the soil through organic practices, empowering farmers through education and cooperation, and nurturing communities through social programs and investment.


Why is Sustainable Palm Oil Important?

Sustainable palm oil is vital to protect the environment, preserve biodiversity, and support social responsibility. Conventional palm oil production can lead to deforestation, habitat destruction for endangered species, and negative impacts on local communities. Sustainable practices help mitigate these issues.

How does Palm Done Right Ensure Sustainability?

Palm Done Right ensures sustainability by setting strict standards and guidelines that must be followed by its partners. These standards include a commitment to no deforestation, no burning, no peat exploitation, and adherence to fair labor practices.

What are the Benefits of Choosing Sustainable Palm Oil?

By choosing products made with sustainable palm oil, consumers contribute to environmental conservation, the protection of wildlife, and the improvement of livelihoods for workers and local communities. Sustainable palm oil helps foster a positive impact on the planet and its inhabitants.

Who are Palm Done Right Partners?

Palm Done Right partners include palm oil producers, manufacturers, retailers, and brands committed to sustainability. These partners undergo certification to ensure their practices align with Palm Done Right’s principles.

Why is PalmDone Right important?

PalmDone Right is important because it offers a sustainable solution to the environmental and social issues associated with traditional palm oil production. By supporting ethical practices and organic cultivation, PalmDone Right® helps protect biodiversity, conserve natural resources, and improve the livelihoods of palm oil workers.

How does PalmDone Right ensure ethical practices?

PalmDone Right ensures ethical practices by adhering to strict standards and certifications that promote transparency and accountability in palm oil production. These standards include no deforestation, no burning, and no exploitation of workers, ensuring that palm oil is produced in an environmentally and socially responsible manner.

Is PalmDone Right certified organic?

Yes, PalmDone Right® is certified organic by leading organic certification bodies such as USDA Organic and Control Union Certifications. This certification ensures that the palm oil produced under the PalmDone Right® movement is cultivated using organic farming practices without the use of synthetic chemicals or GMOs.

How does PalmDone Right ensure responsible palm oil sourcing?

PalmDone Right® ensures responsible palm oil sourcing by working closely with palm oil producers and suppliers to implement sustainable practices. The movement provides training and support to help producers improve their operations and meet the PalmDone Right® standards for ethical and sustainable palm oil production.

How does PalmDone Right support local communities?

PalmDone Right® supports local communities by ensuring fair and equitable treatment of workers and by investing in community development projects. The movement promotes transparency in the supply chain, enabling consumers to support palm oil producers who prioritize the well-being of their employees and communities.

Why You Should Get Involved
with Palm Done Right

Palm can be grown for good, bringing benefits to:

  • Our planet, due to palm oil’s land efficiency.
  • Local communities, due to the economic development oil palm production creates.
  • Our market, due to palm oil’s versatility and functionality as an ingredient, lifting product quality and performance.

Together, we can influence change for:

  • Manufacturers that are still using conflict palm oil for their products.
  • Retailers that are still listing products that contain conflict palm oil.
  • Brokers and distributors that are still supplying their customers with products that contain conflict palm oil.
  • Shoppers that have the power to vote with their dollar.

Get Involved

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