Why We Use Palm Oil

Published on: August 23, 2021

Early summer my attention was drawn to an article with the title “How palm oil became the world’s most hated, most used fat source”, written by Jonathan E. Robins, associate professor of global history at Michigan Technology University. The article was published right after the launch of his book Oil Palm, covering ten years of research of the crop’s history. This was only a month after Jocelyn C. Zuckerman’s book Planet Palm was launched. Two impressive books that narrate in detail how palm oil became so omni-present in the world and how it is linked to many of the big challenges of our time.

Both authors attest that banning palm oil is not the answer to overcoming the challenges in the sector. According to Jonathan, there are “more just and sustainable ways to make palm oil’, versus simply banning it. I decided to reach out to him and learn more about his perspective as a historian of commodities.

Replacement crop
“Why are we using palm oil?”, asks Jonathan at the beginning of our call. When people talk about palm oil, there is little discussion about what it replaced. “What people don’t know, is that palm oil has always served, at least in the US and EU markets, as a replacement for something else. It was never a product that stood entirely on its own”, explains Jonathan.

Back in the 19th century, palm oil’s first industrial uses were in soap and candles. It was used because it was cheaper than animal fats, like whale oil. Over time, manufacturers discovered other benefits to using palm oil, yet the price was the reason palm oil became a big industrial product. Jump forward to the invention of margarine and the introduction of palm oil into industrial foods, when large volumes started pouring into our markets.

At the beginning of the 20th century, several companies made a point of advertising their use of vegetable fats, as opposed to animal fats, taking advantage of public concern over slaughterhouse conditions. With people horrified, many manufacturers advertised ‘we use vegetable oil instead. But ultimately, the price was the primary factor for manufacturers to use it.

Changing perception
Awareness of palm oil has changed dramatically over the last decade. Ten years ago, when Jonathan started his research, he always had to explain what palm oil was. Even though palm oil was already used as an ingredient in about 50% of grocery products, people were ignorant about it. Now, recognition for palm oil is there, but mostly with a negative association.

“People do not realize that there are two kinds of palm oil, sustainable and unsustainable palm oil”, says Jonathan. “The oil palm industry is not one uniform thing; it has many different dimensions.” With the complexity and the overarching perception that exist, how do we highlight producers doing it right? “It’s complicated”, explains Jonathan. “And we tend to overlook that there are many people and communities benefitting from palm development.”

Do we care enough and truly value sustainability? Just consider that almost 20% of global palm oil production is certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), yet not even half of this volume finds buyers willing to pay a premium for the good practices used to produce it. If we keep treating palm oil as a cheap ingredient, we’re hampering the industry-wide shift to the sustainable practices we need to see.

What consumers want
Jonathan is not very optimistic about the end consumer demand driving sustainable palm oil. “It’s the manufacturers that have to switch”, he says. “And this rhetoric, that manufacturers are waiting to hear from consumers what it is that they want, that is not true. Most consumers don’t know what they want until the manufacturer explains and offers it.”

Jonathan acknowledges the power of brands with a unique brand identity, like Dr. Bronner’s. “Dr. Bronner’s is leading the way. They know how to explain palm oil to their consumers. They take the effort to explain why they use it and where it comes from”, he says. Other trusted brands like Mary’s Gone CrackersYum ButterSpinster Sisters, and Good Fish are also setting an example. They don’t treat palm oil as a cheap replacement. They educate their consumers and accept organic, sustainable, and ethical palm oil’s premium price.

Jonathan is right. We shouldn’t wait for some else to drive the shift. We simply decide today that we will only opt for those brands that lead the way: brands that create superior products and choose their ingredients with care for people and the planet.

Written by Monique van Wijnbergen, Natural Habitat’s Sustainability & Corporate Communications Director and spokesperson for Palm Done Right

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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.

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