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September 18, 2020

If you’ve found your way to this blog, you may be aware that SunButter is no longer certified as palm oil free. In a nutshell, the situation is that while we were originally given the palm oil free certification and believed we had done everything possible to ensure our ingredients are not derived from palm oil, one of the suppliers to our manufacturer recently admitted that there was a possibility some of our ingredients might come from palm oil.

It has always been our dream to bring Australia its first cruelty-free, plastic-free sunscreen, so while this recent development is devastating, we will continue to pursue this dream and do everything to rectify the situation so that we can once again proudly call SunButter “palm oil free”. Finding transparency when it comes to supply chains is hard (and this might partly explain why no Australian company is currently able to say that their sunscreen is certified as free of palm oil), but we won’t stop until we’ve got a product we can stand behind 100 per cent.

We’re also taking this opportunity to explain why palm oil is such a massive worldwide problem. You may be aware that there are issues around the palm oil industry and that it poses a threat to orangutan, in particular, but what exactly is palm oil and why is it such a problem? Let’s take a deeper look together. 

What is palm oil?  

Palm oil is the oil extracted from the fruits of the oil palm tree — a tree that’s indigenous to West Africa but was transplanted in large numbers to East Asia around 200 years ago. The tree itself is very sustainable and produces a high amount of fruit. It also requires a large amount of space around itself to grow and thrive.

This oil is used in a staggering array of foods, cosmetics and more — in fact, according to the Palm Oil Investigations, around 50 per cent of the items we regularly consume contain ingredients derived from palm oil. Companies use palm oil because it’s cheap and tasteless, and the food industry is responsible for 72 per cent of palm oil usage. To read which of your favourite foods contain palm oil, head here.

What’s the issue?

Because of our worldwide dependency on palm oil, more and more trees are being cleared to make way for oil palm tree plantations. Oil palm trees can only be grown within 10 degrees of the equator, so certain countries shoulder the heavy burden of providing the rest of the world with its excessive need for palm oil. Indonesia is currently the largest site of deforestation for this reason. 

As tropical forests are destroyed (often through burning the trees), local ecosystems are being decimated. And as if the burning of the trees isn’t enough, peat soils are being disrupted, leading to the mass release of carbon emissions. Oil palm trees are less able to capture carbon than the trees they’re replacing, and deforestation is currently responsible for around one fifth of the world’s carbon emissions.

And then there’s the orangutans. Because orangutans “spoil” the oil palm trees when searching for food, they’re seen as pests and systemically poached in cruel and horrific ways. They also starve to death as their food sources are taken away. Baby orangutans are often separated from their mothers and sold as pets on the black market. Elephants are poisoned so they don’t trample across the crops, and tigers and rhinos are rapidly losing habitat. In total, there are 193 species of animals classified as endangered or vulnerable because of the palm oil industry. 

There are also issues involving human rights abuses, child labour and dangerous chemicals being released into the water supply of local communities. In summary, it’s a terrible and heartbreaking situation from a variety of angles.

How do we avoid it?

This is a complex question. As is often the case when big corporations are involved, palm oil is not always called palm oil: in fact, ingredients derived from palm oil are disguised under about 200 different names (see the list here). 

To complicate things further, the body that’s been established to help point consumers and companies in the right direction, Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), is frequently accused of greenwashing. Because of lack of transparency in the industry and its supply chains, critics of the RSPO say that the very idea of sustainable palm oil is a farce and that the RSPO also has remarkably lax rules around palm oil extraction (many of its own members continue to destroy forests, for starters).

As consumers, it’s a good idea to look for items with a “palm oil free” sticker from the Orangutan Alliance, Go Palm Oil Free or POI Approved, which means they’re certified (rather than just labelled as “palm oil free” by the company, which can be inaccurate and misleading). Do your research and buy as many products as you can from websites such as the Orangutan Alliance and Palm Oil Investigations, which both have excellent palm oil free online stores. 

While the palm oil issue is a big one, there is a string of organisations doing really good work to get us back on the right path. It’s also super important that we take personal responsibility and become more conscious in our buying habits. The less demand there is for products containing palm oil, the fewer products containing palm oil there’ll be on the market. 

Once again, we’re working incredibly hard to clear this up and as soon as we do, we’ll let you our SunButter community know! In the meantime we still have tins of stock that claim "palm oil free". We will continue to use these until the stock has been sold before we reprint. We thank you all so much for your understanding.