Seeking sustainability for palm chemicals


In previous entries, we analyzed the palm chemical industry and compared palm products (i.e crude palm oil and palm kernel cake) with their respective substitutes. For this entry, we will discuss the sustainability for palm chemicals.

As a versatile and low-cost raw material, the thumb-sized palm fruit has created one of the largest emerging economies. Its oil and chemical derivatives are used in many industries ranging from food to detergent and cosmetic. Popularity of palm chemicals is reflected by the global demand that has increased from 15 million tons in 1990s to 60 million tons today.

Borneo forestBorneo forests cleared for oil plantations

However, its widespread usage has also brought about concerns over the environmental costs. In order to plan for palm trees plantation, countries or firms resort to plowing forests, thereby destroying endangered species and releasing many greenhouse gases. Indonesia, for example, has one of the largest tropical forests globally but is facing the problematic issue of deforestation. According to a 2007 United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) report, the entire forest will be destroyed by 2022 based on current conservation efforts. Public image of palm plantations firms are hardly pleasant but this has not deterred the high consumption of palm chemicals. Chemical firms are not spared of criticism due to their heavy usage of palm oil to produce “green” products. To further complicate matters, sustainable energy advocates are condoning forests clearance activities on the basis of harvesting palm oil for sustainable biofuels.

A few green solutions have emerged so that palm chemicals can be more palatable for all parties. Among them, the most prominent is the creation of Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) by palm oil producers and users as a platform to address the sector’s environmental impacts. In order to qualify as a RSPO member, companies have to show continual improvement and progress towards being environmentally friendly. In order to ensure that its 855 members can easily source for sustainable palm oil, RSPO devised two supply-chain certification systems, namely mass-balance and segregation. The mass balance approach is based on monitoring and ensuring that the volume of sustainable palm oil used does not exceed those being produced. In this system, both sustainable and unsustainable oil can mix while they travel the supply chain. The segregation certification system is much more complex and harder to implement. It involves segregating the sustainable oil from conventional fuels at every stages of the supply chain. The transparency offered by these certificates is a major step towards palm chemicals being environmentally friendly. Some critics suggested an easier option of using palm chemical substitutes, which may not be feasible in some industries. Peter Becker, a key accounts manager from German cosmetic firm Evonik, echoed this sentiment by citing difficulties in processes and additives required if a substitute was used.

RSPO_2RSPO Certification system

Progress of Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil has been questionable at times with problems of slow-paced changes and the lack of protection measures implemented against tropical forests clearing for palm plantation. Bright spots are few such as the declaration by the Netherlands, UK, Germany and Denmark in pledging support of fully sustainable palm oil chain by 2020. Nevertheless, it is a good beginning and RSPO does deserved recognition and praise for its pioneering efforts in seeking sustainability for palm chemicals.

I hoped you enjoy reading this article. If you have any queries about palm products, do visit our website at or drop me a mail at

By: Wen Hao

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