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Greenwashing Alert: Malaysian Palm Oil

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Rain Forest
[Image credit: pfly at Flickr under a Creative Commons license]

Rather than taking steps to make palm oil production more sustainable, the industry is relying on marketing tactics to fool the public. They have been running a series of ads with the tagline “Sustainably Produced Since 1917.” The ads feature lush images of the very rain forests that palm oil production pollutes and destroys. The Malaysian Palm Oil Council touts the product’s value as a sustainable oil for producting biofuel, a source of vitamin E for skin products, and a healthy oil for cooking and baking. So what’s the truth about palm oil?

False Claims
The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) slammed the palm oil campaign on several counts. The investigation was prompted by complainted from viewers and nonprofits such as the Rainforest Action Network.

  1. The ads’ imagery “misleadingly implied that palm oil plantations were as biodiverse and sustainable as the native rain forests they replaced.” In reality, rain forest is usually “converted” into land for palm plantations. By “converted,” they mean “cut down to make room.”
  2. The ads falsely depict biodiversity. Using footage of rain forest animals misleads the viewer into thinking that these species thrive on a palm plantation. There is no evidence to support that claim.
  3. Palm oil is not harvested sustainably. In fact, many palm plantations are built on top former rain forests after clear-cutting and burning the land.
  4. The ads claim that palm oil benefits the environment. Between the clear-cutting and reduction of animal habitat, the greenwashing here is a no-brainer.

The ASA has asked the Malaysian Palm Oil Council pull the ads.

Take Action
Palm oil is an extremely common ingredient in food and beauty products. So how do you keep this stuff out of your home? Diligent label-reading is a good first step. The Rainforest Action Network also has compiled a list of “The Dirty 20” brands that frequently use palm oil in their products.

If you have trouble finding beauty supplies in stores that don’t contain the stuff, you might try searching online. Many cosmetics sites will list the ingredient, so you can check them out before you buy. As far as food, a good rule of thumb is avoiding anything too processed. Palm oil is often used to replace hydrogenated oils.

Get Heard
Man of the Forest has a petition against the deforestation from palm oil production. The petition implores supermarkets to make sure that products containing palm oil derive it sustainably and without damaging orangutan habitat.

The Rainforest Action Network is promoting a letter-writing campaign against palm oil. Snag the template from their website and let food and cosmetics companies know that you won’t stand for the palm oil industry’s practices!

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