Palm oil sustainability 

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). Around a third of all vegetable oil is palm oil and it’s used widely in food, cosmetics and other household products.

Over 90% of palm oil is grown in Southeast Asia, specifically Indonesia and Malaysia. More than 50 million tonnes of palm oil is produced every year. 

In the last forty years, 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. At least 50% of packaged products sold in supermarkets contain palm oil. It is also increasingly used as a biofuel.

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 than other major vegetable oils such as rapeseed or sunflower.
  • It 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.
  • It produces higher yields per hectare than other oil crops – for example, one hectare of land can produce 4,000kg palm oil, compared to 500kg of kernel oil.
  • It is therefore cheaper than competing vegetable oils.

Despite these potential benefits, current business practices are not sustainable. Industry expansion 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

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

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, and 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 create demand for producers to 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? 

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 practice 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 good progress has been made in the sector, one of the main barriers preventing zoos from reaching 100% sourcing of certified palm oil is the lack of traceability, the lack of RSPO membership, and 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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