Guest blog: what is the thing with palm oil?

This year we have been working with Dr Carolin Schurr in Switzerland. Her new ‘Follow the Thing: Studying Transcultural Markets’ course at the University of St Gallen ran in parallel to our ‘Geographies of Material Culture’ course at the University of Exeter. To showcase the awesomely critical, creative scholar-activist work that our students produce, this year we’ve published student guest blogs about gun sights,  iPhones and paint. This post contains two pieces of work on palm oil by Carolin’s students Gianmarco Zorloni, Harpreet Perhar, Julian Krauth, Leonardo Ehnimb and Milan Kuzmanovic. We start with a short animated information film (expertly put together using Videoscribe software), followed by a script showing how ‘the thing with palm oil’ can enter conversation and affect behaviour, and finishing with the research report upon which this work is based. How can you respond to ‘follow the thing’ research that finds that thing in, more or less, everything?! 

The information film

The script

“Hey honey, when are you coming home?

I’m on my way right now, will be there in a minute.

Ok, and please don’t forget to pick up that shampoo for me, and remember, check the ingredients, no palm oil.

Ok, don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten. See you home”

Well, as they say, ‘saved by the bell’. Don’t want to describe my relationship as a boxing match, but trust me, constantly forgetting what you are kindly asked to do is not really a virtue. As I actually was a minute away from home, I went back to the supermarket nearby to pick up the shampoo. Then I went home and flew into my usual routine: kiss my girl, change and relax by the TV. She joined me and we watched some movie. When it was done, she went to take a shower, but soon, she was back with the shampoo in her hands.

“Honey, this one contains palm oil.” Impossible I thought, I’m no Einstein, but I sure can read the labels.

“What do you mean, where?

Here, sodium lauryl sulfate, this is made out of palm oil.

Sorry, honey I didn’t know.

It is ok, I can buy a new one tomorrow.”

I am going to pause here, because there is probably a big question in the air right now.


Well, to answer this I have to go one day back. My girlfriend had met some of her friends from the university for a coffee. A group of them had been working on a research paper about palm oil, as a part of a course that focuses on ethical consumption and tracing commodities back to where and how they are produced. They had told her that palm oil is produced under terrible working conditions and how it is contained in many everyday products, such as cosmetics and snacks, while people are being completely unaware that they consume it. This brings us to where I paused.

Frankly, before she had mentioned it yesterday, and asked me to buy the shampoo, I hadn’t even heard about palm oil. But now, I was really intrigued to see what the issue with palm oil is, and how can we be unaware that it is used in so many products. So, that night I decided to do some research about it. I contacted her friends, and they sent me their work. The things I’ve read were appalling. Palm oil is contained in shampoos, soaps, chips, chocolate, pizza, coke…, you name it. It is the most used vegetable oil in the world. In fact, I would be surprised if you haven’t consumed some of it today. Furthermore, it’s no wonder how people don’t know about it, since its derivatives take many names that you can hardly associate with palm oil: palm stearine, palmitoyl oxostearamide, palmitoyl tetrapeptide-3, sodium laureth sulfate, sodium lauryl sulfate, and many more. It is produced mainly in Indonesia and Malaysia, under what I have come to find out, outrageous working conditions.

One of the major suppliers in Indonesia, a company called Indofood, which is a supplier of PepsiCo, uses child labor and pays unethically low wages. Just when I think how many of their products I consume, never asking where they come from, makes me angry at myself. Imagine a childhood without education and normal living standard, while you have to work all day with your parents on palm oil plantation, being exposed to hazardous chemicals. Deprived would be an understatement. Imagine that for your hard all day work, you receive a wage, so low that you can’t even satisfy your own basic needs, and you have a family to feed. I live in Switzerland, and I calculated purchasing power equivalent of their wage, and it is not even enough to buy food for a 4-person family, and for rent, you would need to double that figure. On top of all that, these people are renounced basic labor rights. They’re not allowed to form unions and ask for better conditions. There are millions of workers on palm oil plantations, and millions of children and families which face these conditions. For the sake of humanity, we have to do something about it.

There are campaigns which aim to improve conditions for workers in the palm oil industry, the most prominent one being the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). This organization gives certificates to socially responsible and sustainable producers. However, first efforts of the RSPO did not result in improvement of working conditions because certificates were given upon companies’ promise to be responsible and sustainable in the future. This resulted in companies marketing their responsibility and sustainability with RSPO certificates, without actually being responsible and sustainable, and RSPO did not have mechanisms to ensure they keep their promises. On the other hand, more recent efforts, together with critiques, involvement and pressures by several NGOs, have resulted in improvements in RSPO standards.

I want to emphasize how crucial our role, as consumers, is in this process. Whether we realize it or not, each day, our consumer behavior has influence on the lives of the people behind the palm oil. Governments and companies have failed to take action on their own, to ensure workers and their families have normal lives, and that is why it is up to consumers to provide them incentives to change. It is unrealistic to expect that we stop using palm oil, it is ubiquitous, but by looking for RSPO certified products, we are sending a signal to big companies who use palm oil in the production of foods and cosmetics that if they want to retain customers, they must put pressure on their suppliers to be socially responsible. The threat of losing profits is proven to be a strong incentive for companies to make changes.

More importantly, we need to show any company that we care about how its workers are treated, and that we will refuse products which are soaked in someone’s tears and blood. We must inform ourselves about background of products we put in our everyday basket. If we fail to do so, we will remain complicit in these actions.

To finish my little story, I went to bed late at night, after my “palm oil research”. I also woke up late the following morning. When I came into the living room, there was my girlfriend opening her favorite chocolate.

“Enjoy it missy, that is the last one you are having. That brand is not RSPO certified.”

She looked at me with a surprise in her eyes, and the first bite of chocolate in her mouth.

The background research

The research on which this video and script has been summarised in the following report:

Gianmarco Zorloni, Harpreet Perhar, Julian Krauth, Leonardo Ehnimb and Milan Kuzmanovic (2016) Working conditions in the upstream segment of Palm oil industry in Indonesia. University of St. Gallen School of Humanities and Social Science [download here]


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