Can consumers understand that there is more to palm oil than deforestation?

Nutella. Rainforest deforestation. Unhealthy. These are the words most often associated by German consumers with the term ‘palm oil’. Amidst the predominantly negative discourse, terms like ‘highest yielding’ or ‘most efficient vegetable oil’ rarely enter the conversation. While mismanaged oil palm cultivation can indeed have detrimental socio-ecological impacts, the benefits of palm oil, and more importantly, its comparative performance to other vegetable oils, should not be outright dismissed. However, consumers in western palm oil importing countries do not seem convinced. Overwhelmingly negative sentiments persist even when informed that replacing all palm oil with soybean oil, the second-highest yielding vegetable oil, would require six to eight times the amount of land to meet the increasing demand.

Consumer perceptions are binary

Despite the provision of information treatments, consumers tend to remain skeptical when it comes to understanding how sustainably produced palm oil does not always fare worse than other vegetable oils including soybean, sunflower or rapeseed oil. This alludes to the fact that current consumer perceptions about the sustainability of palm oil are rooted in binary notions (unsustainable vs. sustainable) rather than being able to take on an evaluative role in navigating the varying sustainability trade-offs from different vegetable oils, while also considering the global reality of supply and demand. The prevalence of negative sentiments towards palm oil may still be a relic of past campaigns. Especially in western palm oil importing countries, these were visually striking and emotionally engaging, often involving orangutans as iconic species symbolizing the palm oil industry impact on habitat destruction, biodiversity loss and deforestation.

‘Free from palm oil’ claims

Nonetheless, these past perceptions may not be fully reflective of the progress and development that has happened in the certified palm oil sector. This is exacerbated by the more widespread use ‘free from palm oil’ claims compared to labels indicating the use of certified sustainable palm oil, such as from the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). This in turn fosters a climate in which consumers show more trust towards products with unregulated free from claims than towards third-party sustainability organisations. 

From skepticism towards solutions

While skepticism towards third-party certification organisations can, to an extent, be justified, it risks leading to misleading conclusions about a product’s sustainability and fuels uncertainty in decision-making. This calls for solutions that are transparent and interoperable across private and public sectors. For consumers, a composite and holistic eco-label would not only be more sensitive to differences in production systems but could also alleviate bewilderment among consumers who are trying to navigate and make sense of all the available product labels and claims they are confronted with on a daily basis. Nonetheless, given the plethora of labels, varying in scope and complexity, consumer interventions need to be supplemented with initiatives throughout different levels of the science-policy interface. With the adoption and implementation of the EU’s corporate sustainability due diligence laws, supply chains, including those of palm oil’s, will be put under increased scrutiny. Such top-down policies, coupled with consumer-focused mechanisms, invite more transparency in aligning the perceived with the actual environmental performance of production systems, supply chains and products, so that alternative vegetable oils are not falsely glorified.

The European Union (EU) and Indonesia have a Partnership and Cooperation Agreement in force since 2014 providing a basis for regular political dialogue and sectoral cooperation. The agreement gives a legal framework for collaboration in a variety of policy fields, including trade, political dialogue and human rights. The two parties have also launched free trade negotiations in 2016 with the aim to deepen trade and investment relations through a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA). The CEPA would facilitate trade by removing and reducing tariffs and non-tariff barriers, and would cover a broad range of issues such as trade in services, intellectual property rights and provisions for sustainable development.

CEPA negotiations

However, questions surrounding palm oil have challenged the CEPA negotiations. Indonesia is the world’s biggest producer of palm oil, a commodity widely used in the production of food ingredients, non-food consumer products, and biofuels. Whereas palm oil provides a livelihood for 16 million Indonesian smallholder farmers, workers, and their families, it also accelerates deforestation and biodiversity loss, threatens endangered species, and violates indigenous land rights and human rights.

Public debate in Europe

Therefore, public debate in Europe has raised concerns about the adverse effects of oil palm monoculture farming. Discussion has centered on limiting palm oil use and has been held up by consumers, governments, and non-government organizations (NGO) alike. The critique has been evident also in Finland where newspapers have frequently listed consumer products containing palm oil. The World Wildlife Fund has held up the quest for joint responsibility concerning Europe’s contribution to tropical deforestation and the attaining of Sustainable Development Goals (SDG).

This resulted in the European parliament decision in 2018 to ban the use of palm oil in biofuels in the EU. As a response, Indonesia filed a lawsuit against the EU at the World Trade Organization, with final report from the dispute settlement body expected in late 2023. Yet it was noted that the European parliament decision had been affected not only by NGO critique but also by European vegetable oil producers that had been lobbying the EU institutions. The issue of palm oil is thus highly contested.

It must be noted that together with China and India, the EU is one of the biggest importers of palm oil from Indonesia. Contemporary geopolitical developments are challenging agricultural trade not only in palm oil but in staple crops, thus severely affecting food security in the Global South. The Russian attack war in Ukraine has complicated global food provision by disrupting supply chains with damaging consequences to global food systems.

New research project: Good and Bad Palm Oil

This is the context and starting point of our recently launched research project Good and bad palm oil. Food security, paradigm shift and bargaining among stakeholders in Indonesia and the EU.

In the project we are interested in the viewpoints on palm oil of different stakeholders ranging from smallholder farmers to NGOs and regional, national and global policymakers. We aim to understand how the views are shaped by institutions and values, how the policies are affected by power relations, and how the changes in the debates are driven by new information on environmental and social challenges and Agenda 2030 SDGs.

For example, recent research concludes that dismantling oil palm farming could lead to even quicker deforestation by switching the farms to other vegetable oils, such as rapeseed or sunflower that require more land, water and fertilizers. Further, as noted by researchers, boycotting palm oil may indicate hypocritical double standards: why not boycott coffee, cocoa and chocolate too, as their farming has comparable effects.

Therefore, we need to understand the broad context as well as the parallels and contradictions in the viewpoints, and how contradictions could be mitigated. It will be important to identify the positions taken by different stakeholders from the grassroots level to the global trade regime level on the “good and bad” of palm oil in order to find solutions that increase global food security and at the same time, help reach Agenda 2030 goals.

China Dialogue Palm Oil Awareness Week

Since 2019, China Dialogue has examined whether the major palm oil markets can grow without increasing emissions and harming biodiversity. We have strived, through our reporting, to encourage open dialogue, amplify marginalised voices and produce unbiased, in-depth coverage of the challenges and opportunities of the global palm oil industry. This includes building support for the global shift towards sustainable palm oil.

As an organisation China Dialogue is dedicated to advancing climate action through promoting understanding of climate change and our planet across barriers of language and culture. We broadly cover topics of climate, nature, food, energy, and sustainable development, and believe that our multilingual, multicultural platform has a unique role to play in raising awareness of these issues.

Pros and cons of palm oil

Used in everything from food, cosmetics and paints to fuels, palm oil is a versatile and lucrative raw material. But the consequences of its rapid growth in production have been devastating for tropical forests, biodiversity, and local communities in palm oil-producing regions, especially in Southeast Asia. The irresponsible expansion of this crop causes deforestation and degradation, habitat loss for rare and unique species, greenhouse gas emissions, and human rights abuses, including land grabbing from indigenous peoples and labour exploitation.  

China and India are major palm oil markets

Over the years, China Dialogue has consistently shed light on the ongoing environmental and social challenges of palm oil production, while also highlighting the importance of sustainable practices. We have focused particularly on the important roles that China and India can play, as major palm oil markets, in global sustainability efforts.

After Indonesia, India is the largest consumer of palm oil but very little of what that India imports is sustainable. Even though conscious consumers are willing to support sustainable products, the lack of awareness of palm oil remains a major challenge. It’s a similar story in China. The world’s second largest importer could play a key role in the transition, but raising awareness among Chinese consumers will be essential. As my colleague Yuhan Niu recently reported, there could be great potential to raise awareness through campaigns around cosmetics and instant noodles, which represent a significant share of China’s palm oil imports.

Urgent need for sustainable palm oil practices

Our coverage has stressed the urgent need for sustainable palm oil practices and support for those producers who are acting. Through meeting strict environmental and social criteria, including zero deforestation, respecting human rights, supporting local communities especially indigenous peoples, and protecting habitats, only then can palm oil be considered sustainable. Those companies that produce sustainable palm oil must be responsible, transparent, and accountable.

Palm Oil Awareness Week

This year, China Dialogue will launch a dedicated Palm Oil Awareness Week aiming to educate, foster conversation, and raise awareness about palm oil. From 17th to 21st July, we will be publishing a range of palm oil-themed content across our social media platforms, including brand new animated explainer videos, educational Twitter threads, highlighting key palm oil articles, and more!

Raising awareness of sustainable palm oil is critical to realising the change needed. We hope that our coverage can continue to provide a platform for dialogue and cooperation among stakeholders, including civil society, NGOs, governments, companies, and dedicated individuals, as well as work towards the broader climate and sustainability agenda, promote the conservation of natural resources, protection of livelihoods, and responsible consumption patterns. We hope that you will join us in raising your voices around palm oil!

How can you look for products with certified sustainable palm oil? WWF has the answer!

Are you aware of how ubiquitous palm oil is in the products we use every day? From food to cosmetics, palm oil is found in an estimated 50% of consumer goods. But did you know that palm oil can be sourced and produced sustainably and responsibly?

WWF believes that we can make a difference by choosing products that use sustainable palm oil. Certified sustainable palm oil (CSPO) is produced in a way that doesn’t harm the environment or wildlife, and supports local communities:

WWF: “So next time you’re shopping, look for the RSPO CSPO label on products, check out the Palm Oil Buyers Scorecard (POBS) to know how your favourite brands are faring and choose to support companies that are committed to sourcing sustainable palm oil. By choosing products made with certified sustainable palm oil, you can support the palm oil industry’s transition to more responsible and sustainable practices. Join us in our efforts to protect our planet and its biodiversity.

Stay tuned for more educational videos on palm oil. Together, we can create a more sustainable future.”

Know more about your favourite brands on the POBS website.

Chester Zoo: Everything You Need To Know About Sustainable Palm Oil

Another great source for information in your search for sustainable palm oil, is the Chester Zoo website.

In a May 2023 TedX Talk, Chester Zoo’s Science Director Simon Dowell discusses “the role of modern zoos in reversing the current biodiversity crisis and how they can use their voice to influence political solutions”. He promotes the use of the PalmOil Scan App to find sustainable palm oil products.

Check out his full TedX Talk.


The issue of palm oil sustainability raises the hackles of those who say there is no such thing, and demand a boycott of palm oil, but most of those working on the ground in producer countries say a boycott would be pointless and commitments to sustainability are the way forward.

The executive director of the UK-based Orangutan Land Trust, Michelle Desilets, said: “More and more we are seeing conservation organisations, and, in particular, orangutan NGOs, working with the growers and the wider supply chain to drive change on the ground.

“This doesn’t necessarily involve an exchange of money but rather a change in practices to not only protect orangutans in the landscape but to carry out concrete conservation actions that improve the situation for wildlife.”

Orangutan NGO BOSF and palm oil company SSMS collaborate

The Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation (BOSF) and the palm oil company PT. Sawit Sumbermas Sarana (SSMS) have been collaborating on a landmark project in Indonesia that started in 2015: the Salat Islands Cluster.

Henky Satrio Wibowo (SSMS)

Henky Satrio Wibowo (SSMS)

Henky Satrio Wibowo, who is head of the corporate sustainability division at SSMS, says the Salat Islands programme is part of the company’s commitment to the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) and SSMS is also trying to remove the stigma relating to palm oil, the belief that is it is always negative for orangutans.

“We want to show to the world that palm oil and orangutan NGOs can collaborate in order to preserve the orangutan,” Wibowo said. “We hope that other palm oil companies will follow our example.”

For Wibowo, sustainability is about collaboration – collaboration between the palm companies, NGOs involved in orangutan rescue and protection, local communities, local governments, and the national government.

The CEO of the BOSF, Jamartin Sihite, says the Salat Islands are not a solution to deforestation in Indonesia, but, for the many orangutans in cages at BOSF’s Nyaru Menteng centre, they are a huge step that is allowing the primates to return to the forest as soon as possible.

Avoiding conflict

Chairman of the BOSF board of trustees, Bungaran Saragih, says that if we wish to achieve sustainability we need to learn to avoid conflict.

Panut Hadisiswoyo of the Medan-based Orangutan Information Centre (OIC) in Indonesia.

Panut Hadisiswoyo of the Medan-based Orangutan Information Centre (OIC) in Indonesia.

“Conflict is very costly,” he said. “That’s why we have to learn to cooperate; to learn to follow the paradigm of inclusivity: ‘You are not my enemy. You are my friend.’”

Landscape-based approach

Chairman and founder of the Orangutan Information Centre, Panut Hadisiswoyo, says sustainable planning needs to be landscape based.

“We need to be looking at the landscape as a whole, not just the administration boundaries,” Hadisiswoyo said. He added:

“Pressuring the industry to produce palm oil responsibly will regulate the way palm oil is produced. Boycotting will not do this. The industry will still sell to other consumers who do not care about sustainability.”

Read the full article for additional viewpoints.

WWF supports sustainable palm oil. On World Wildlife Day, we reflect on our responsibility to protect the magnificent diversity of life on our planet. As SPOC we would like to use this day to highlight the palm oil position of our Advisory Team member WWF.

In a SPOC webinar, Kamal Seth, WWF’s Global Palm Oil Lead, shared the WWF’s global palm oil vision: “Halt the conversion of natural ecosystems, ensuring that palm oil production, trade and consumption is responsible; protects, restores and connects landscapes; and benefits people and nature”.

In this video WWF explains that boycotting palm oil is not a solution:

This is why WWF is one of the close to 100 conservation organizations and NGOs that have signed the Statement in Support of Sustainable Palm Oil.

The World Wildlife Fund says that “Palm oil production doesn’t have to be destructive and it can be produced responsibly as a part of sustainable development that accrues positive socio-economic impacts.”

WWF holds companies accountable for their sustainable palm oil sourcing policies and practices. Check the WWF Palm Oil Buyers Scorecard to see how your favorite brands are performing.

Chart the future of the palm oil revolution.

With such a promising tag line, SPOC couldn’t resist to find out more on Pokok-Ed, “an educational game that simulates the palm oil supply chain in countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, and Cameroon.” We asked founder and developer Maanit Goel to explain why he developed this online game.

Maanit Goel, why did you develop this game?

I’ve been passionate about addressing the palm oil deforestation issue since I first learned of it in my 7th grade classroom, but up until recently, I didn’t know what more to do besides boycott palm oil wherever I could. However, upon further research, I found that the issue is incredibly complex- for instance, boycotting all palm oil isn’t even an appropriate solution, since we should be encouraging sustainable palm oil producers to produce more while cornering unsustainable producers out of the market. And addressing a complex issue from the consumer side of the market requires rapid, effective, and engaging education that can be scaled across markets in a timely manner.

As a student myself, I’ve found that students are the best audience to rapidly spread lessons learned via community and family, and what better way to educate students about a complex topic than through a video game, which can be rapidly scaled, continuously updated, and provided free of cost?

How do real smallholders respond to the game?

Thus far, I have not been able to consult real smallholders on the game, but my outreach efforts continue! As the game is hosted online, I’m able to quickly update game mechanics to better reflect the realities smallholders face day-to-day as I receive more information. In working to make this game truly reflective of real-world scenarios, I first consulted the ETH Zurich board games developed under the OPAL project for inspiration on the overall season-by-season structure and some of the tradeoffs included in production, as the researchers who developed those resources were able to directly communicate with smallholders. In that way, I hope to indirectly carry on that smallholder input into this game.

I decided to split each round (a season, in-game) into a preparation phase, a harvest phase, and a sale phase, and within each phase, I wanted to provide the players with actions that would be available to real palm oil smallholders. In the prep phase, I was specifically focusing on those actions that would require the player to make tradeoffs between sustainability, ethics, and revenue- for example, deforestation, hiring workers, and leveraging child labor. In the harvest phase and sale phase, I added player agency in determining the number of trucks hired and setting a sale price, to introduce more randomness into the system while reflecting the impacts of business decisions on player success. These allow the player to embrace the feeling of running a business, while maintaining gamification and requiring players to develop not only sustainability strategies but also business strategies to succeed in the game.

Dr. Frierson from the University of Washington was very helpful in providing advice from his experience in environmental video game development with a group he leads at UW, called EarthGames. I was able to use his input to keep the game engaging and entertaining while simultaneously educational.

Do you think that the game is useful for children from consuming countries?

Yes! The game was actually developed for consumer markets. While players are put in the shoes of smallholders, the purpose of this was to teach consumers about the people impacted on the other end of the supply chain. In playing the game, students will learn how deforestation and child labor can arise out of necessity, and why even practices such as ending deforestation in the player’s plantation is not enough (because neighboring plantations will continue to expand, and gain a competitive advantage). By highlighting these issues, the game will help players understand the importance for consumer demand for sustainable practices and certification, as it will become evident that for as long as there is no sustainability distinction in consumer demand, there is no way for smallholders to solve the issue of deforestation as there will always be a plantation looking to gain a competitive edge by producing unsustainable palm oil at lower costs. 

While the game is accessible to all ages, distribution (free of cost) is currently targeting students ages 12-18, who are old enough to fully grasp supply chain complexities and deal with difficult topics such as child labor and wildlife extinction.

What are the expected learning outcomes for players of the game?

  1. Educate students about:
  1. a)  The palm oil cultivation process for smallholder farmers in developing regions.
  2. b)  How issues such as child labor and rainforest deforestation can arise out of necessity.
  3. c)  Options for sustainable practices in palm oil cultivation.
  4. d)  The consequences of different approaches to sustainability in the palm oil supply chain and other global supply chains.
  1. Mobilize students in consumer markets to take informed approaches towards palm oil sustainability. 
  2. Inspire students to consider the global natures of consumer product supply chains, and how consumer choices abroad can influence sustainable and ethical practices in producer regions .

Check out the game!

Pokok-Ed website