Palm oil - the Australian connection

'The social and environmental impacts of palm oil plantations are immense, threatening some of the world’s most bio-diverse rainforest and ancient cultures.’ 12.

Palm Oil is the hidden ingredient in more than 50% of our supermarket products, including foods, cosmetics, cleaning products and increasingly in some parts of the world as a constituent of biofuels. In our region, tropical rainforests are being converted to palm oil plantations at a massive rate.

The destruction of the original vegetation is leading to massive climate pollution, destruction of local ecosystems, including the iconic species which rely on them, such as the Orang-utan, and often bring negative social impacts to local communities. Palm Oil is also heavily implicated in the annual fires that cause enormous health problems across south east Asia. Agricultural fires across Indonesia blanketed southeast Asia with toxic haze throughout September and October last year. According to the World Resources Institute, the fires released 1.62 billion tons of carbon dioxide, making Indonesia the fourth largest carbon emitter globally.

There is an Australian dimension to this problem. Our ‘Big 4’ banks all invest in companies involved in palm oil production in Indonesia.

A 2015 study by NGO TUK Indonesia and the Netherlands-based Profundo identified that Australian banks were amongst the twenty major banks providing loans to tycoon-controlled palm oil groups in Indonesia. ANZ and the Commonwealth Bank provided around US$500 million in loans between 2009 – 2013, and the National Australia Bank (NAB) and Westpac Banking Corporation just over US$200 million in the same period.

Australian banks should be investing in ethical and sustainable ventures, not destructive industries like fossil fuels or forest destruction.

Take Action

Please send a message to the Big 4 banks letting them know you want them to get out of investing in palm oil. An action alert is available here. [LINK]

Please see below for details on how you can use your power as a consumer to support sustainable palm oil production.

What is palm oil?

Palm Oil (PO), its the hidden ingredient in more than 50% of our supermarket products, including foods, cosmetics, cleaning products and increasingly in some parts of the world as a constituent of biofuels. 1.  Palm Oil has many uses, such as in food products, from chocolate to chips; cleaning products including shampoos and detergents, cosmetics such as lipstick, and is increasingly being used in biofuels.  Yet few of us are aware of how its production impacts nature and people.  The greatest level of consumer demand for palm oil is arising from Asia’s populous emerging markets, where PO is widely used in cooking. 2  India, China, Indonesia and Europe are the prime consumers of the oil; estimates suggest that a French person uses 2kg per year. 4  Global production of palm oil has doubled over the last decade, and is set to double again by 2020; most of the expansion is likely to occur in Indonesia. 1  This ecological disaster has been many years in the making and global companies bear much of the responsibility. 14

Certainly PO has many benefits as a product; it is the highest yielding vegetable oil crop, requiring less fertiliser and pesticides than other oil crops, such as soybean, to produce the same amount of oil 8. Its absence of smell and smooth texture make it a very popular ingredient for mass produced food products. 4.   Nonetheless, palm oil remains very controversial and few viable alternatives are currently available. 1

LINK: see the excellent Guardian Newspaper – Rainforest to cupboard interactive

While palm oil is central to the livelihoods of millions of small scale farmer around the world, the global market is mostly dominated by a small number of powerful corporations, such as Wilmar International,  which are funded by Australian, European and US investors. These companies are creating the conditions for ongoing destruction, as we will explain. 5  FoE groups say that the voluntary policies of the corporate actors and their financiers are not working.  “We call on the governments of Indonesia, the EU and the U.S. to implement strong and binding laws to prevent disasters like this from ever happening again” Jeff Conant, senior international forest campaigner with FoE-US. 6

Palm oil benefits and impacts.

Palm oil grows best in some of the most biodiverse countries in the world, including Indonesia, the largest producer, with 6 million hectares of plantations.  It feeds millions and contributes 11% of Indonesia’s revenues, coming second only to fossil fuels. 1  Palm oil production employs millions of Indonesians and generate billions in income for the private sector.  Although PO is often said to offer a potential path out of poverty (28 million in Indonesia live below the poverty line), the processes involved in the creation of palm oil are driving very detrimental environmental and social impacts. 8

The massive expansion of plantations is behind ecosystem destruction and is generating the conflict and suffering arising from land disputes between local people, indigenous people. With business hungry to expand in an environment with weak legal protection to local communities, forced displacement of rural populations and Indigenous peoples has resulted. 8  The primary drivers of these trends include investments in large-scale land acquisitions, steep rises in commodity prices, along with commodity speculation.  It is likely that these trends will continue unless there is strong action by governments, environmental activists and civil society groups. 9

For further information

FoE – Driving deforestation: issues brief -

FoE - Greasy palms

FoE - Landgrabs, forests & finance: Issue brief #1


Indonesian Fires of 2015 and their climate impacts

Most of the expansion of PO plantations is occurring on peatlands and associated forests, the Earths most concentrated carbon stores: ’10 million of the 22.5 million hectares of peatland in Indonesia have already cleared of forest and have been drained’, resulting in a massive increase in carbon emissions. 5 Indonesia now has the highest rate of deforestation of any major forested country.’ 5  Fire is one of the key tools used to deforest areas and prepare them for palm plantations, and in 2015 much of Indonesia burned.

In 2015 a massive area of Indonesia was consumed in flames, this resulted in very significant health and environmental problems: fires in peatland and associated forests can continue for months, releasing a toxic cocktail of air borne chemicals and resulting in enormous carbon emissions, which are greater for peatland than any other land type. 6  At their peak the fires were producing more carbon emissions than the US economy. 6. The health impact on the people of the region was significant. Many of these fires, including those on land designated for palm oil were deliberately lit. 6  George Monbiot of the Guardian Newspaper said ‘it is almost certainly the greatest environmental disaster of the 21st century – so far.’ 10   The palm oil industry is also considered to be one of the most polluting industries in South East Asia and women, who make up the majority of the workforce, are often negatively impacted by pesticides which are used on the plantations. 8


Palm oil production is driving species extinction.

The fires and associated deforestation is directly impacting on the well-being of many of the iconic endangered species and the magnificent ecosystems they call home. Impacted animals include the Orang-utan, Sumatran rhinoceros, Gibbons and the Sumatran tiger.  According to Palm Oil Investigations ‘over 50 Orang-utan are killed every week due to deforestation, their homes are bulldozed, they have nowhere to go, nowhere to escape and are left to starve.’ 12  Additionally, loss of biodiversity on land converted to palm oil is irreversible. 8  In sum, the current means of palm oil production in Indonesia are unsustainable.

Greenpeace published the Under Fire report in 2015, which presents an up to date and comprehensive coverage of the issues. In summary, the report says that existing structures which aim to make PO production more sustainable (such as the RSPO and Forest Sustainability Council) is not stopping forest destruction, and that the Indonesian government’s policies do not go far enough.  The report recommends 5 simple steps:

• Stop the destruction:

Ban all forest destruction and peatland development in Indonesia and work with other stakeholders to enforce this ban.

• Ensure transparency and accountability:

Land-tenure and forest-cover maps must be published in support of the ‘One Map’ initiative. Companies and government must ensure that PO producers are properly monitored through independent third-party verification.

• Clean up the trade:

Companies that continue to create the conditions for fires and haze by draining peatlands and destroying forest must face sanctions and be locked out of the market.

• Clean up the mess:

Any forest lost to the fires must be restored. Further restoration efforts must concentrate on the vulnerable forest and peatland areas that have borne the brunt of the fires.

• Start the solution:

Incentives and benefits must be provided for communities to develop livelihoods that support forest conservation. These include recognition of customary land rights, legal mechanisms for forest conservation, a scheme for Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES), improved yields within existing plantation areas, and support for the establishment of cooperative schemes.


Further information

Greenpeace - Under Fire report (2015)

FoE – Up in smoke report (2015)

FoE - Greasy palms report (2013)

George Monbiot article – Indonesian fire disaster


The Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO)

In 2004 the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was established to promote the use and production of sustainable palm oil.  RSPO has ‘2000 members globally that represent 40% of the palm oil industry, covering all sectors of the supply chain.’ RSPO. However, a 2013 Greenpeace report ‘Certifying Destruction’, found that ‘its current standards leave its members free to destroy forests.’  13. On a positive note worldwide demand for certified oil increased in the first months of 2014 by 48.8%. Though demand lags, with only 47% of the 5.28m tonnes of certified product finding a premium price, forcing it to be sold on the conventional market. 13.

More information

Greenpeace – Certifying Destruction report (2013)


Indonesian government

In late October 2015, President Joko Widodo pledged to address one of the key causes of the immediate crisis by issuing an official instruction to end further development on peatlands, including within existing concessions.  14  Unfortunately many of the governments existing laws and policy have the potential to undermine the Presidents best intentions; government agents have been accused of threatening companies that are members of Indonesian palm oil pledge, actively undermining industry attempts toward sustainability. A lack of transparency is seriously undermining progress, with government refusing to release maps of legal palm plantations, making monitoring of illegal deforestation difficult. 14




Friends of the Earth International

FoE is calling on world governments to implement strong laws to prevent further destruction caused by PO, saying voluntary agreements such as RSPO are not enough.


Palm Oil Investigations (POI) -

POI was launched in 2013, it aims to educate about the impacts of unregulated palm oil.  

‘We are not against palm oil; we are against deforestation for palm oil. POI are not in favor of consumer boycotts, but are in favor of improving regulation’.  POI believe there are three steps to stopping destructive Palm oil destruction: 1st step – product labelling, 2nd step –  price needs to rise, 3rd step – massive pressure on brands to purchase RSPO certified Palm oil.

LINK: POI – what is the solution

The POI Palm oil identification app – a great tool for the ethical consumer

POI have developed a great tool to aid the ethical shopper.  ‘The app is free to download and available to anyone concerned about the impact of unregulated palm oil supply used in products. It will make it easier for people to choose which products to purchase at the supermarket with the app telling them immediately whether the product contains palm oil and if so, if it has been sourced ethically.’  FoE has tested this app and has found that it is quick and easy to use. Users can also send in product details to POI for items not currently listed.

LINK: POI app -

POI trademarks campaign

‘POI understands the difficulties for consumers in identifying products that are either palm oil free or contain ethical palm oil supply.  We have found many claims within the industry that don't quite ring true.  POI will be launching Palm Oil Free and Traceable No Deforestation Policy TM's for products. ‘‘Our Traceable No Deforestation Policy TM is backed up with full traceability and tracking of palm oil supply which is implemented by The Forest Trust

POI ethical consumer resources

LINK: palm oil can be listed under up to 200 names -

LINK: advice to consumers on learning to read between the lines of company product statements -


Palm Oil Action (POA) -

FoE is a member of POA and have launched a campaign to pressure Australian companies to improve their purchasing policies.  POA has a broad support from Australian environment groups including Greenpeace and the Australian Orangutan Project.

POA campaigns

POA is seeking donations to support stalls outside shopping centres, are asking for volunteers outside stores and have protest postcards to send.

POA also have extensive resources to help the ethical shopper including:



Greenpeace believes that palm oil can be produced responsibly. Palm oil production has been part of the livelihoods of local communities in Asia and Africa for decades, and can contribute both to economic development, while protecting forests and other ecosystems. Greenpeace envisions palm oil production by local communities and industrial players that protects forests, and follows responsible agricultural practices while contributing to economic development and respecting the social, economic and cultural rights of local communities.’

Greenpeace is part of the Palm Oil Innovation Group (POIG), which aims to build market space for leading sustainable Palm oil companies within RSPO (see below).

LINK:  POIG statement - Forests/POIG Statement 28 June 2013.pdf

Greenpeace consumer and activist resources

LINK: Solutions -

LINK: Tiger challenge – rates where companies stand on sustainable Palm oil -

LINK: Dirty truth video - forests/Palm-oil-the-dirty-truth/


Palm Oil Innovation Group – POIG

POIG members include Greenpeace, WWF, Forest Peoples and leading Palm oil companies.  ‘The Palm Oil Innovation Group (POIG) aims to support the RSPO through building on RSPO standards and commitments and by both demonstrating innovation to implement RSPO existing standards as well as with additional critical issues.’ 

POIG focuses on three thematic areas of environmental responsibility, partnerships with communities, and corporate and product integrity.  POIG focuses on creating innovations in the palm oil industry and the promotion of these innovations.  POIG will demonstrate that by setting and implementing ambitious standards, the industry can in particular break the link between palm oil and deforestation, and human, land and labor rights violations.’

POIG charter -


The Orang-utan Project TOP -

TOP is “the world's foremost not-for-profit organisation, supporting orangutan conservation, rainforest protection, local community partnerships and the rehabilitation and reintroduction of displaced orangutans back to the wild, in order to save the two orangutan species from extinction”.

The Orang-utan Project - ethical consumer resources

LINK: TOP operate the Palm Oil Free products website -

TOP campaigns

LINK: source responsibly campaign -  targeting Kellogs and Snakbrands -


World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF)

‘The problem is not palm oil itself; it’s where and how it is produced. Through WWF-Australia’s Market Transformation Initiative we are working to shift palm oil markets away from business as usual.’

LINK: what is WWF doing -

LINK: Round Table on Sustainable Palm oil (RSPO) explained -


WWF ethical consumer resources

LINK:  Palm oil buyers score card 2014 -

LINK: ‘UNSEEN’ film trailer, also includes info for consumer advice and action -


ZOOS Victoria – Palm oil

‘Orang-utans are facing extinction due to the unsustainable production of palm oil, an ingredient in around half of all supermarket products.

Help fight for a future where all palm oil in Australian supermarkets is clearly labelled and is only 100% Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO) - produced in a way that protects the last remaining habitat for wildlife and preserve the livelihoods of producers.’

Zoos Victoria Palm oil campaigns

Don’t Palm Us off!

Zoos Victoria’s Don’t Palm Us Off campaign aims to drive the introduction of palm oil labelling to give Australian consumers the choice. We believe that labelling of palm oil in Australia is the first step to educating and empowering consumers so that they can create a market for Certified Sustainable Palm Oil in Australia.

LINK: don’t palm us off -

Zoos Victoria ethical consumer resources

Zoopermarket tool

‘What’s really in your shopping trolley?

Unsustainable palm oil production is destroying orangutan habitat. Palm oil is in nearly half of all packaged items at your supermarket yet often not labelled.  You can take action to help save wild orangutans right now! Choose your favorite products below and send a personal message to their makers.  You deserve the right to choose products that don’t drive deforestation.’

LINK: zoopermarket tool -


Round table on sustainable palm oil (RSPO) -

‘The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil RSPO aims to transform markets to make sustainable palm oil the norm. As a not-for-profit association, we unite stakeholders from the palm oil industry to develop and implement global standards for sustainable palm oil. We have over 2000 members globally that represent 40% of the palm oil industry, covering all sectors of the global commodity supply chain.’

LINK: News site in partnership with Guardian Newspaper -

RSPO ethical consumer advice

LINK: Palm oil news - News site in partnership with Guardian Newspaper -

LINK: consumer information -


Produced by Tim Read, Jan 2016 for FoE Australia

With thanks to Tessa Toumbourou for research and resources.



1 - Guardian Newspaper – Rainforest to cupboard intactive

2 - FOE greasy palms (2003) –

4 - RSPO -

5 - Greenpeace – Cooking the climate report (2007) -

6  - FOE US -

7 - FOE ‘Global palm oil companies and financiers responsible for Indonesian peat fires’ -

8 -  FOE – Greasy palms report (2005) -

9 -FOE International – Driving deforestation report -

10 - Guardian Newspaper, George Monboit

11 - Palm oil investigations -

12  - Greenpeace - Under fire report 2015  - advise of excellent description of RSPO process in this report -

13  - Greenpeace – Certifying Destruction report ( 2013) -

14 - FOE – Up in smoke report (2015) -


Other references used.

Palm oil research report (2010) -