Oil from a West African palm species is found in everything from soap to chocolate to cosmetics. It's the world's second-largest oil crop after soy, and its prevalence is growing, thanks to its status as a trans-fat-free flavor and texture enhancer.
But palm cultivation poses some major environmental issues, such as land conversion, says David McLaughlin, managing director of agriculture for the World Wildlife Fund, a Washington, D.C.-based conservation group.
"If you go to Indonesia and into Borneo, you can go to areas where they've cleared the forests in a 50-mile radius to plant palm oil," he says.
Because heavily forested tropical areas sequester carbon, destroying them contributes to global warming. The solution to this conundrum could lie in sustainable palm-oil production, which doesn't require clear-cutting and follows organic agricultural practices.
In 2002, the WWF helped create the Malaysia-based Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, which shaped sustainability standards for palm-oil producers. Members of the RSPO—such as Unilever, which has vowed to use only RSPO-certified palm oil in all of its beauty products by 2015—promised to purchase some quantity of sustainable palm product.
However, many companies have broken their agreements because of the price premium, McLaughlin says. Only 1 percent of sustainable palm oil available worldwide has actually been purchased, prompting the WWF to start calling out companies slacking on their commitment. Later in 2009, the organization plans to release a scorecard that ranks major retailers', manufacturers' and traders' sustainable-palm-oil use.
The WWF is currently evaluating roundtable members and giving them time to respond before the scorecard is made public. Find out more at wwf.org and rspo.org.