Ima is a 10-year-old girl from Malaysia who wanted to be a doctor when she grew up. Instead, she was forced to leave the classroom behind and toil on a palm fruit plantation for up to 12 hours a day alongside her family, according to a recent investigation by AP.
The plum-sized palm kernels she gathers are eventually turned into palm oil, the most ubiquitous vegetable oil in the world, found in up to 50% of packaged supermarket items from cookies and bread to lipstick and soap.
Although 42 countries produce palm oil, Malaysia and Indonesia account for roughly 85% of the market, according to the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF). As the AP investigation shows, labor laws and enforcement are weak and spotty in these countries. As a result, more than 1 million children harvest palm kernels in Indonesia alone. Many laborers have no access to running water, electricity, health care, or schools.
The vast majority of the palm oil purchased by brands as diverse as Nestlé, Whole Foods, and the Girl Scouts may be harvested by forced and child labor. It’s a human rights crisis that could be connected to your favorite cereal, cookie, or makeup brand — and this doesn’t even factor in the staggering environmental toll of palm oil production. Because of unsustainable practices, the industry has caused significant deforestation, WWF reports.
A young girl collects palm oil fruit on a palm oil plantation in Sumatra, Indonesia, Nov. 13, 2017. Some workers who fail to meet impossibly high quotas can see their wages reduced, forcing entire families into the fields to make the daily number.
In Indonesia, palm oil producers destroyed rainforest the size of the United Kingdom between 1990 and 2015, and the industry threatens 193 critically endangered, threatened, and vulnerable animals, according to Greenpeace.
Palm oil can be produced in ethical and sustainable ways and the world shouldn’t turn away from the substance altogether, according to the WWF. The organization notes that “palm oil supplies 35% of the world’s vegetable oil demand on just 10% of the land.” Switching to other oils would consume far more land, causing more deforestation, and potentially exacerbating forced labor problems.
But finding palm oil that’s sourced in ways that empower workers and protect the environment is challenging. As Greenpeace points out, the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), an industry watchdog and sustainability certifier, has failed to hold palm oil producers accountable for deforestation and forced labor.
Tackling this global issue is daunting, but here are four ways you help make a difference.
1. Check the packaging.
Checking if palm oil is in a product seems straightforward: Just look at the label and scan the ingredients. But palm oil is turned into an estimated 500 different derivatives by the time it reaches shelves, and these derivatives account for 60% of all palm oil uses, according to Ethical Consumer.
There are four words and prefixes in particular that often reveal if palm oil is present: “palm” (obviously), “stear,” “laur,” and “glyc.” Beyond this, you can consult the Orangutan Alliance’s handy list of hundreds of obscure names for derivatives.
Some products have seals indicating the quality of palm oil used, but you can double-check the integrity of these claims by searching online. While the RSPO has been criticized for inaction and providing cover for companies, it has also helped to convene major palm oil producers and pushed the industry to improve its practices.
In recent years, the Palm Oil Innovation Group (POIG) was formed to support the RSPO in its efforts to transform palm oil production.
POIG’s vision is “a responsible supply chain that has broken the link between palm oil production and the destruction of forests and peatlands, the exploitation of communities and workers, and climate change.”
2. Do your research.
Land cleared for oil palm plantation, East Kalimantan, Indonesia.
The global nature of supply chains means that everyday goods and products are often harvested, produced, and shipped in unethical and unsustainable ways. Nearly every major industry in the world — from food production to consumer goods to clothing — features some degree of forced labor and environmental destruction.
You can learn a lot about the products you buy through online research — from how its raw materials are sourced to what sorts of labor standards are involved in its production to its overall environmental toll.
You can then put this research into practice by shopping at companies that commit to treating workers fairly and protecting the environment. The WWF’s extensive palm oil scorecard can help guide you on this journey.
3. Pressure companies.
Last October, the chocolate giant Mars — maker of M&Ms and Snickers — announced that it reached 100% deforestation-free palm oil sourcing. The conglomerate said it had reduced its palm oil supply chain from more than 1,500 palm oil mills to fewer than 100 in an effort to tighten oversight and accountability.
This sort of shift is possible on a much larger scale if pressure is applied on different levels. In response to the AP investigation, for example, the Girl Scouts called on its suppliers to adhere to RSPO standards. Past journalistic investigations have similarly raised awareness and spurred reform.
Individuals and communities can ramp up this pressure by calling on brands to investigate their supply chains and commit to protecting worker rights and the environment. Multinational companies can exert tremendous pressure on their suppliers to improve standards. They can also pay for better sourcing. By refusing to shop at these companies, consumers can send a clear message that profit margins are in jeopardy unless changes are made.
4. Call on politicians to take action.
Collected oil palm fruits in San Martin, Peru.
The ongoing human rights abuses and environmental destruction caused by the palm oil industry is ultimately a political issue. In Indonesia, widespread political corruption prevents palm oil producers from being held accountable, according to a 2018 investigation by Mongabay and Earthsight.
“Across much of rural Indonesia, the most valuable commodity these corrupt politicians have to offer is land,” Tom Johnson, head of research at Earthsight, wrote. “The largest demand for that land, meanwhile, is for the development of giant [palm oil] plantations.”
Johnson continued: “Palm oil cash has led to the election of politicians who take decisions in the interests of the industry, increase the area of land ceded to companies and then fail to regulate them.”
In 2013, according to Johnson, the chief justice of the nation’s highest court was caught taking a $250,000 bribe to rule in favor of a district chief connected to palm oil firms.
Five years later, Joko Widodo, the president of Indonesia, announced a three-year freeze on new palm oil licenses and the government’s intention to review existing licenses in an effort to root out corruption. But two years on, little change had been made, according to the Jakarta Post.
Bribes that enable rainforest destruction to produce palm oil sold to multinational companies that make thousands of niche products may seem like an abstract and even intractable problem to ordinary citizens anywhere in the world.
But all commerce is connected in the global economy. By raising awareness of this issue, bringing it to the attention of elected representatives, and building coalitions to demand accountability and reform, you can help bring about change.