Why? Palm oil is, after all, a natural product, derived from palm trees. The problem lies in the proliferation of palm oil plantations, particularly in Papua New Guinea, Malaysia and Indonesia (where the deforestation of rain forests for the production of palm oil has elevated the otherwise developing nation as the world’s third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, behind industrialized China and the U.S.). Besides losing the carbon stored in forests, this pattern is destroying wildlife-rich habitat, including that used by the charismatic orangutan (pictured here).
Importation of palm oil to the U.S. tripled in five years, according to the Rainforest Action Network, which has launched public campaigns to pressure companies like Cargill to source palm oil from sustainable plantations. Some in the industry are working with nonprofit groups on the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil to certify plantations that use sustainable practices, but it’s still difficult for consumers to determine which brands, in a wide variety of categories, represent the more sustainable choices. The best bet is to look for brands that advertise their membership in the roundtable, though some watchdogs warn that the sustainability standards aren’t as strong as they’d like.