I’ve written about the nutritional profile of fats and oils, but what about the environmental impact?

While in Malaysia I noticed an immense amount of land propagated for African oil palms. I knew there was concern around it’s agriculture, but I did not know the serenity of the situation until I connected with my friend Magdalena.

The African oil palm produces palm oil, a vegetable oil derived from the fruit pulp of the plant and generally healthy to consume. You can find it in a myriad of food products, body-care products like toothpaste and deodorant and many home products. Often times though products will not have palm oil listed as an ingredient. You’ll see it listed as it’s derivative like glycerin, emulsifiers, stearates, etc.

The crop’s high yield and ease of growing allow for the annual production of fifty million tons of palm-oil. It fills almost half of the products you buy in stores. But at what cost?

Growing and producing palm oil is immensely damaging to the environment.

Environmental Impact of Palm Oil
►Rapid deforestation of precious, irreplaceable land
►Animal endangerment from destruction of habitat
►Ponds of wastewater at palm-oil refineries release immense amounts of methane, which is 34 times more potent than carbon dioxide
►Indigenous peoples are pushed out and displaced for access to farmable land

This video sums it up well. 


It is for these reasons that Magdalena is going palm-oil free and I wanted to share a few things she has learned in the process.

After years of being a conflicted primatologist who consumed products that directly endangered primates, Magdalena Antuña set out to go palm-oil free and documented her trials along the way. As the only American resource of its kind, this project quickly evolved into the environmental online magazine you see today. Selva Beat is a daily meeting grounds where the conservation-minded can find conflict-free articles, product guides, recipes, and reviews. As Editor of SB, Magdalena aims to educate about the industry, form a discourse between company & consumer, and have a general laugh at the precarious nature of “no impact” living.

Over seven months ago, I began an experiment to see if I could live without consuming palm-oil* It felt hypocritical for me to commit my life to primates and, while conducting academic research to secure their conservation, consume products that were directly linked to their demise. I gave myself 365 days and started documenting it to benefit whomever it might reach. What I didn’t expect was to find a community of people who were unhappy with conflict palm-oil and wanted to mitigate their connection to its devastation through consumership. In my professional experience, the idea of boycott is met with a lot of hesitance. I understand that it is a very self-serving gesture, if not coupled with ‘actions’ like communicating with the company you’re unhappy with and changing the system on which they rely. I also believe, however, that I have no obligation to companies who are using unsustainable practices. Whether you want to call it boycott or abstinence, what it really means is that I don’t want to financially or ethically support the ramifications of conflict palm.

Edit: Before this said ‘conflict palm-oil’ but to be clear, the challenge I set forth was (and still is) to not consume palm-oil at all, in any form, whether it be whole kernel oil or a derivative, etc.

So, I set out to do all three ‘actions’ as much as one person could with a full-time job. It hasn’t always been pretty and here are the biggest lessons I have taken away so far; my advice to you if you’ve ever thought about about making the cut yourself:

Planning is Crucial to Any Lifestyle Change
I partially learned this lesson when I was diagnosed with a severe wheat allergy the year before. If you don’t plan, especially with avoiding conflict palm, then you’re likely going to fail. Just like being gluten-free, you can certainly get by with the bare minimum. You can give up make-up and processed foods but in order to live comfortably, you have to do your research and that takes time. I converse with people often that say that living palm-oil free is impossible; it can be very, very difficult, but certainly not impossible. For some reason, it is easier to conceive of going vegan, gluten-free, paleo, cruelty-free, or non-toxic but avoiding conflict palm-oil is hard to wrap our heads around. Trust me, you’re still going to have trouble when you go on vacation and there will be moments in the beginning when you’ll just blow your whole plan, but isn’t that all just to be expected?

I gave myself three months to do my homework and sort things out, at my own pace, and I think that this beginning period is crucial to any decided life change.

Sometimes it is genuinely hard finding specific products that you need, sometimes you have no choice but to make them yourself. You will have to seek out regional, independent makers, visit your local farmer’s market, or do some DIY. Right now, that’s just how it goes.

Buying Conflict Free Isn’t More Expensive  
I thought that switching to palm-oil free products, like gluten-free items, would be very expensive. While these things do cost more on average, especially when you factor in shipping, the difference is that now I really only buy the things that I need. Before the challenge, I spent a lot of money on just “trying” things out. I always had three different shampoos in the shower and a cabinet full of serums, eye liners, and lipsticks. I don’t think this is necessarily bad. It’s okay to have stuff. I still have a lot of lipsticks, even if they are palm-oil free. But I do think my habits before were completely mindless and now that I know, it’s just hard to go back.

Now, I view everything I buy as a potential investment. I’ll admit it is a lot less fun (especially when everyone else is picking up something new) but financially, at least, it is better for me. I had to ask myself why I relied on these products so heavily – what aspects of myself did this item enhance? Could this effect be duplicated some other way? There are many different means of improving yourself and making yourself happy — this is something with which you have to experiment.

Read more about Magdalena’s experience on Selva Beat and check out this list of Palm Oil Free products.

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