Addressing the environmental impact of palm oil 

Palm oil is found in half of packaged supermarket products. Its unsustainable production has led to decimation of rainforest, threatening species like tigers and orangutans. How can we help reduce its environmental impact?  

What is palm oil?

Palm oil is derived from the fruit of the African oil palm tree (Elaeis guineensis). The flesh of the fruit is pressed to produce crude palm oil, and the kernel is separately crushed to produce palm kernel oil. These oils are then further refined to produce a variety of different fractions and derivatives. 

More than 70 million tonnes of palm oil is produced globally every year. Over 90% of oil palms are grown in Southeast Asia, particularly Indonesia and Malaysia. 

In recent decades, oil palm plantations have expanded dramatically in response to ever-increasing global demand for palm oil.

What is palm oil used for?

Palm oil is very versatile and widely used. Around a third of all vegetable oil is palm oil and it’s used widely around the world as a cooking oil, in food, cosmetics and other household products, as well as for biofuels. 

Palm oil has the potential to be a more economically viable and sustainable vegetable oil than the alternatives:

  • It uses up to 10 times less land per tonne of oil produced than other major vegetable oils such as rapeseed or sunflower.
  • Its production generally uses less fertiliser and pesticides than alternative oils, and it can be harvested all year round.
  • It is odourless, tasteless and does not require hydrogenation to form a solid fat.

Despite these potential benefits of palm oil compared to other major oil crops, current business practices are still in many cases linked with significant environmental and social damage. Industry expansion still threatens natural forests and other ecosystems in many countries throughout the tropics.

Fighting for sustainable palm oil

Palm oil plantation spreading endlessly.
Toolkit for sustainability

SPOTT platform

A free online platform that tracks transparency and supports sustainability across the palm oil, timber and pulp, and natural rubber supply chains.

Problems with unsustainable palm oil

Palm oil is typically produced on land previously occupied by tropical rainforests and peatlands that contain high levels of biodiversity.

This land is often cleared illegally, destroying some of the world’s most diverse habitats, and increasing pollution and carbon emissions through slash-and-burn agriculture.

In many areas, palm oil companies fail to respect local communities and treat their employees poorly.

We're working to encourage the palm oil industry to reduce its negative impacts on the rich wildlife and ecosystems in Indonesia and elsewhere

A tiger caught on camera trap close to an Indonesian palm oil plantation. ZSL has studied the wildlife in areas around palm oil plantations to understand how setting aside land for conservation can help, and develop guidelines for growers.
male gibbon in a tree

Should we just stop buying palm oil?

There is continued debate about whether buying products containing palm oil is a sustainable choice. We believe that boycotting palm oil entirely is not a practical solution. There are many reasons for this:

  • If we stop buying it, palm oil producing companies could still sell their unsustainable products to markets that do not demand high environmental standards.
  • Although there are alternatives to palm oil, such as soybean or rapeseed oil, these other vegetable oils also come with their own set of problems.
  • The International Finance Corporation and the World Bank has estimated that to meet the world’s vegetable oil demand in 2020, an additional 42 million hectares of land would need to be cultivated for soybean oil, compared to only 6.3 million hectares for oil palm.
  • Palm oil production provides income for over 4.5 million people in Indonesia and Malaysia alone, generating 9.5% and 4.8% respectively of their exports in 2022. In 2019, palm oil accounts for 4.5% of Indonesian GDP.

Boycotting palm oil removes incentives for large businesses and small-scale farmers to adopt more sustainable practices. To prevent increased deforestation and pollution, we must demand that producers reduce these negative impacts.

Palm oil plantation spreading endlessly.
Uganda palm oil sapling field
© ZSL Sophia Gynch

Buying sustainable palm oil

What can you do to create a sustainable palm oil industry? 

  • Don’t just avoid the problem by boycotting palm oil altogether; instead be part of the solution by supporting Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) certified sustainable palm oil (CSPO) as a minimum.
  • Look out for products bearing the RSPO Trademark, which show that they contain a minimum 95% of CSPO. 
  • Read more about the issues in the palm oil supply chain, and what producers can do better, through our reports and guidance.
  • Expand your knowledge of sustainable palm oil practices through our training materials.
  • Check the sustainability certification of palm oil in your favourite products using mobile apps such as WAZA’s PalmOil Scan App and RSPO ScanApp (currently only available in France).
  • Take a look at other scorecards assessing buyers, retailers and financiers in the palm oil supply chain, such as Global Canopy’s Forest 500, WWF’s Palm Oil Buyers Scorecard, and the Forests and Finance database.
Certified sustainable palm oil logo (RSPO)
ZSL conservationist in the field holding radio tracker
Young palm oil plants for planting

What is ZSL doing to create sustainable palm oil?

We first started working with the palm oil industry in 2001, advising companies on how to safely manage wildlife, including populations of Sumatran tigers found where they operate.

We now run projects in Indonesia and Cameroon, along with a variety of other initiatives:

  • We advise key members of the palm oil industry to help them raise standards.
  • We encourage good practice in companies working within key ecosystems.
  • ZSL sits on the governing board of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), supporting the development of its global certification scheme, which currently covers one fifth of all palm oil produced worldwide.
  • We run the Sustainability Policy Transparency Toolkit (SPOTT), a free online resource that provides assessments of major palm oil producers and traders, and key timber, pulp and paper producers against best practice indicators relating to environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues.

Wildlife and the climate crisis

African elephant in drought, barren landscape
Tackling the climate crisis

Climate change

The climate crisis is pushing our planet to its limit, but together we have the power to make a difference.

Need advice on sourcing sustainable palm oil?   

Together with the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums (BIAZA), we promote sustainable behaviour change among visitors and best practices in zoological management. We believe that zoos provide the perfect venue to raise awareness and take action on the issue of sustainable palm oil, because many of the tropical species in our collections are directly affected in the wild by palm oil industry operations.

Although the sector has made good progress, several barriers prevent zoos from sourcing 100% certified palm oil, including lack of traceability, limited RSPO membership, and inadequate uptake of RSPO certification in animal feed supply chains.

BIAZA supports actions to increase the supply of sustainable palm oil being brought into the UK and encourages its members to ensure unsustainable palm oil is removed from their supply chains by sourcing products containing only certified sustainable palm oil.  Visit the BIAZA website for a useful list of resources.

Creating sustainable palm oil

Toolkit for sustainability

SPOTT platform

We're influencing buyers and producers of palm oil, rubber and timber to act more sustainably.

Steps towards sustainability

Sustainable palm in Cameroon

20 million hectares of new oil palm plantations could be established in west and central Africa over the next decade. We're working with governments and industry in Africa to ensure biodiversity conservation in the face of an expanding industry.

18 November 2019

Palm oil and climate change

93% of palm oil producers have not assessed climate risk.

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We're working across the world for wildlife, from the depths of Artic seas to tropical islands in the Indian Ocean. Stay up to date with our progress restoring wildlife.