It's a jungle: Navigating the supermarket aisles in search of palm oil

Written by Jane Kern of Bank Australia, who are proudly supporting the 1 Million Women team on their Sumatran Jungle trek.

Palm oil production drives massive deforestation in Indonesia and Malaysia, damaging habitats for orangutans and contributing to climate change through gigatonnes of CO2 emissions.

So why is so much palm oil produced? Who buys all this palm oil? Most people who shop at a supermarket. Around 50% of packaged supermarket products contain palm oil.

If palm oil is so bad for the planet, why don't we stop buying it? Well, palm oil is not always easy to spot. It is used in many types of products, and there are hundreds of different ways it can be listed on an ingredients label. This means it's not so simple to find and cut out palm oil from your supermarket shop.

Inspired by the 1 million women trek to the Sumatran jungle to investigate the impacts of palm oil, I decided to be more proactive on my next shop. I wanted to find out whether palm oil was contained in my usual products, and see whether there were alternatives.

Get informed

As a first step, I did some pre-shop research. World Wildlife Fund has a page which lists the types of products to look out for (everything from lipstick to packaged bread!), as well as the main names used for palm oil on ingredients lists (ranging from the generic "vegetable oil" to the tongue twisting "Palmitoyl Oxostearamid").

This is helpful background, but it's a bit tricky to remember all those names when standing in the supermarket aisle. That's why I downloaded the Palm Oil Barcode Scanner app as back-up.

Armed with my new knowledge and handy tool, I hit my local supermarket.

Search the shelves

In the supermarket, I first turned over each product to look through the ingredients. Some were easy. Milk, for example: no palm oil. Others looked a little more suspicious – like those containing "vegetable oil". Time to get out my app.

The Palm Oil Barcode Scanner app uses the barcode to search for information including whether the product contains palm oil, and whether that palm oil has been sustainably harvested. Shopping with the app took a little more time than usual, but produced both some positive and negative surprises.

Some items on my shopping list were happily palm oil free. Other products I scanned came up with a big red "fail" meaning that they contained palm oil with no certification about its harvesting. Here, the app was able to suggest alternative products that were either palm oil free or contained sustainably harvested palm oil.

Interestingly, many products with very positive ratings for sustainable palm oil did not have any mention of this on the packaging. Thus, the app was helpful for getting this extra level of detail.

Take action

OK, the breakfast cereal I normally buy contains palm oil. Now what?

I've got a couple of options: find an alternative product without palm oil, or find one using sustainably harvested palm oil.

For some products, like breakfast cereal, it was easy to swap away from palm oil.

For other products, it wasn't easy to cut out completely, but there were certified palm oil alternatives available. In the shampoo section, for example, it was simple to switch to a brand with an active no deforestation policy.

All in all, with a little extra research, I managed to cut back on my palm oil habit: now only 30% of the products I bought contained palm oil, and all of that was sustainably harvested.

Bank Australia is proud to support the 1 million women team on their trek through the Sumatran Jungle impacts to see the impacts of palm oil firsthand.

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1 Million Women is more than our name, it's our goal! We're building a movement of strong, inspirational women acting on climate change by leading low-carbon lives. To make sure that our message has an impact, we need more women adding their voice. We need to be louder. Joining us online means your voice and actions can be counted. We need you.

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