THE PALM OIL DEBATE: SHOULD PALM OIL PRODUCTS BE LABELLED VEGAN OR NOT? WE SHARE OUR STANCE AS AN ONLINE RETAILER

The ubiquitous vegetable oil has been a contentious ingredient for several years, sighted as a key contributor to the destruction of rainforests. In recent months the palm oil debate has made a resurgence in the world of conscious consumption, in particular, within the vegan community. Many are of the opinion that products containing palm oil should not be listed as vegan due to the impact it has on biodiversity, the poor stewardship of natural habitats and resulting animal suffering for certain species.

Being a retailer in the wellness living space means our product offering caters to a wide pool of consumers, each with their own green-living needs and expectations. While we are not retail powers that be, consumers look to us to assist them in navigating the space of what is or is not considered green living choice, and we’re thankful for the trust you invest in us.

Consumers do carry a collective responsibility of holding retailers accountable, so we applaud our customers for raising this particular concern with us, as we do believe it is an important topic to address. We’re happy to share our perspective and hope it provides clarity to those looking for a way to traverse this space with us.

The question “Should Products Containing Palm Oil be Listed as Vegan?” comes down to two criteria for us as the online store; namely (a) Labelling Standards and (b) Ethical Values.

FIRST SOME BACKGROUND CLARIFICATIONS FOR THOSE ENTERING INTO THE CONVERSATION:

SHEDDING SOME LIGHT ON PALM

Palm oil is a vegetable oil extracted from the fruit of the African oil palm and is a primary ingredient in more than half the products in most homes. (Side note: palm kernel oil is extracted from the seed of the palm fruit, whereas palm oil is extracted from the fruit itself). The 62 million tons of palm oil required by today’s product and food industries are produced by Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea as well as central and South America. Palm oil is actually one of the most planet friendly oils to farm, producing more oil per square meter than sunflower, soy and rapeseed oils, for example. It also requires less pesticide use, water and fertiliser than other vegetable oil plantations. While this does make it one of the most efficient oil producing crops, this has also unfortunately made it a lucrative industry giant, with horrific implications.

Within many poorly supervised communities, massive tracts of forest land have been and continue to be burnt in order to make room for the ever-growing palm oil demand. This has not only impacted the orangutans, but rhinos, tigers and a host of other biodiversity. Since the global increase in this awareness, there has been much effort to establish deforestation-free, sustainable palm oil. Organisations such as the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) closely monitor crops hoping to be listed as sustainable sources, but even here there is concern about how sustainable the industry can truly ever be. WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature) is also working hard through the ranks of bodies like the Palm Oil Innovation Group (POIG) to establish models for sustainable palm oil production in mainstream farming communities.

SO WHY ARE SOME MEMBERS OF THE VEGAN COMMUNITY PUSHING FOR PALM OIL AS AN EXCLUSION CRITERION TO VEGAN LABELLING?

Palm oil, in and of itself as an ingredient is vegan because it comes from a fruit. But to understand why this conversation is becoming a tricky place for vegans to navigate, one needs to fully appreciate the spectrum the term ‘vegan’ can encompass.  As noted by the Vegan Society, “Veganism is a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.” Palm oil’s agricultural animal cruelty implications has justifiably become a hotbed for scrutiny in the vegan community.

BUT WHAT’S THE CURRENT PROTOCOL WITH VEGAN LABELING?

In order for a product to be certified as vegan it needs to uphold the production standards of organisations like V-label or Vegan.Org  that no animal product or byproduct was used in the manufacturing process. These are the same current best-practices we as a company implement when deciding whether to list a product in a vegan filter. Currently ‘animal suffering’ doesn’t fall within the vegan labeling criteria.

The debate regarding the excessive animal suffering or biodiversity impact incurred by the palm oil industry is a necessary one. And we agree that serious attention needs to be given to better management practices.

However, we cannot begin to approach product ingredient filtering with such disparity, looking only at the damage palm oil incurs versus the potential negative impact of soybean oil or coconut oil, for example. Is it true that palm oil is produced in far greater quantities and is therefore possibly responsible for more animal suffering? Yes. But if we make the quantity of animal suffering caused, the measure for exclusion as a vegan product, are we not then indirectly condoning animal suffering if it occurs to a lesser degree?

The unfortunate reality is that any mass produced agricultural commodity, will in all likelihood have a negative impact on our natural world at some point during its manufacture. It is a bitter pill to swallow.

For a product to be completely cruelty free throughout the entire process of its lifecycle is an immensely challenging feat. And this is where this conversation reaches its crux. If we as a business begin to apply this filter to palm oil, then the light needs to be cast on any and all vegetable oils in equal measure.

It is for this reason that we have decided not to exclude products containing palm oil from our vegan category at this juncture in the conversation. For now, we feel this is the most considered approach that takes all factors and shopping preferences into account.

HOW ARE WE ABLE TO HELP YOU NAVIGATE THIS PALM KERNEL OIL/CRUELTY FREE/VEGAN SPACE?

We deeply respect how passionate members of the vegan community are about cruelty free living in every aspect possible. But requesting retailers adopt the task of safeguarding this execution during the shopping process by simply automating the omission of palm oil products in the vegan filter, we believe will do more damage in terms of raising awareness on the matter for future shoppers.

While entirely well-guided, the answer isn’t to restrict the term veganism to exclude any and every natural resource that can incur animal suffering consequences if mismanaged. While that might seem like the simpler solution to our current admittedly complex palm oil sustainability issue, the more intentional but far harder ask is that you, the consumer, remain in the mindset of questioning ingredient ethics and scrutinising their sources.

We believe in cultivating a shopping environment based on transparency. We build on that by offering you as many product filtration functionalities as is feasible.

Our online shop offers a ‘Vegan Filter’, a ‘Palm Oil Free Filter’ as well as a ‘Cruelty Free Filter’. All three can be applied to any product search. Read more about the filter search here.

We are also currently working on adding a section addressing these concerns under our FAQs. In our newsletters and content channels we also continually strive to keep you abreast of new developments in the sustainability industry.

THE BOTTOM LINE:

The bottom line is (and we really do want to stress this): you are doing the planet a justice by reducing your reliance on palm oil products. While we do our best to verify our supplier’s ingredient sources, there are twenty-two derivatives of palm oil (bi-product ingredients that some manufacturers aren’t even aware stems from raw palm oil), so if you feel strongly about its impact avoiding it is your best approach.

Ultimately however, we leave the decision of whether or not you want to include an omission of palm oil products to your vegan living approach up to you. We hope this leaves you feeling equipped to finetune and uphold your own chosen levels of ethical consumerism.

It is not for us to dictate how our customers navigate their personal ethical journeys.

We at Faithful to Nature wholeheartedly believe, strive for and continue to work towards the self-awareness and responsibility that emanates from being empowered through diligent and consistent transparency.