How you can help keep the haze away

Southeast Asia’s haze crisis has sparked a heated conversation on what everyone from companies to governments should be doing to end the burning. Here’s one thing consumers can do now to help address the problem.

lipstick dressing table
Spot the palm oil: The substance is found in about half of all products sold in supermarkets, including cosmetics, cookies, margarine, and detergents. Image: Shutterstock

From staging consumer boycotts to calling for the Indonesian government to crack down on illegal deforestation, Singaporeans have for months demanded a permanent end to the acrid haze that has engulfed much of Southeast Asia recently.

This year’s burning season in Indonesia is the worst on record, and has cast a renewed spotlight on one of the key reasons the country’s forests and peatlands are in flames: To clear land for palm oil and pulpwood plantations.

It is no doubt important to urge the archipelago nation’s government to help prevent these fires and send a message to companies that people don’t want to buy products linked to illegal deforestation.

But one solution has largely been missing from the conversation: We need to reduce the palm oil we consume in the first place.   

It’s in everything

The reddish oil and its derivatives are ubiquitous in household products including cookies, pizza, margarine, ice cream, bread, instant noodles, lipstick, lotions, soap, and detergent, to name a few. As the crop is cheap and versatile, it is popular among food and consumer goods manufacturers alike, and demand is growing.

Almost 60 million metric tonnes of palm oil were produced in 2013, according to the US Department of Agriculture, and this figure could jump to 240 million tonnes a year by 2050, says the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). 

This will inevitably pressure companies to expand their plantations at the expense of tropical rainforests.

But many products which contain palm oil probably end up as waste, thanks to a combination of consumerism, a ‘throw-away’ culture where goods are discarded without much thought about the environmental consequences, and poor resource management.

By cutting down wastage of food, cosmetics, and other products containing palm oil, we can help slow down demand and ensure that each drop of it is used efficiently.

Sustainable – but limited - choices

In response to the haze, many Singaporeans have attempted to flex their consumer muscle by pledging to switch away from companies suspected of links to the haze, and support sustainable palm oil and paper products instead.

For paper, they have a wide array of eco-friendly options to choose from, ranging from recycled paper to goods certified by responsible forestry non-profit Forest Stewardship Council, and even non-wood fibres made from bamboo and elephant dung.  

But finding products with certified sustainable palm oil is not as easy.

Firstly, there just isn’t enough of the stuff to go around. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil is an industry association which certifies palm oil which is grown in a socially and environmentally responsible way. Only 20 per cent of the global supply has earned RSPO’s stamp of approval to date.

Secondly, even out of the meager handful of consumer products that use RSPO-certified oil, only two types of items are available in Singapore: Gold Bullion butter and margarine, and soaps by The Body Shop, L’Occitane, and Swedish Spa.

Not all consumers can afford these premium personal care brands as an everyday staple, and entire categories of food and household essentials such as detergents, make-up, and bread are not on RSPO’s list of certified products.

In fact, shoppers in Singapore may not even be able to tell if a product contains palm oil.

Unlike in the European Union, there is no law which requires the substance to be clearly labeled on packaging, and it can be disguised under vague terms like ‘vegetable oil’ or ‘vegetable fat’. This lax legislation is because stricter rules might pose a trade barrier and add to import costs, according to a recent report in The Straits Times.

One way consumers can affect change is by pressuring other firms to only use palm oil from certified, traceable, and sustainable sources, which is what Anglo-Dutch firm Unilever has pledged to do by 2020.

But the long-term nature of these targets may leave individuals feeling like they have little agency to choose “haze-free” products today. By reducing waste now, they can immediately start to drive down demand for palm oil.

Love forests, hate waste

Tackling food waste is a great place to start. Singapore’s National Environment Agency estimates that the city-state generated 788,600 tonnes of food waste last year, or about 140 kilogrammes per person. Globally, this statistic stands at 1.3 billion tonnes, or one-third of all food produced for human consumption. 

While there are no figures on exactly what percentage of food in Singapore contains palm oil, a recent report in The Straits Times showed that about half of all products in supermarkets here – food and toiletries included - contain the substance.  

Given its ubiquitous presence in snacks and confectionery, wasting such food items equals wasting palm oil. The same is true for cosmetics and toiletries, an industry which is booming in Singapore.

Shoppers in the city-state spent S$1.5 billion on beauty and personal care products in 2014, compared to $1.18 billion in 2009, market research firm Euromonitor International reported in July this year.

A glance at any fashion magazine or the cosmetics sections of department stores also suggests that companies constantly exhort people to buy the latest, trendiest make-up.

But often, items such as lipstick and creams have a shelf life of between six to 12 months. There is a limit to how much a person can use up in that time, and multiple tubes may expire and get thrown out before they are finished, meaning that ingredients made with palm oil and its derivatives are wasted as well.

Careful consumption

This is not to say that people should stop buying pizza, make-up, and other daily necessities which may contain palm oil. Nor am I suggesting that we simply replace palm oil with other vegetable oils.

Palm oil is currently the most resource efficient vegetable oil, and it would take far more land, pesticides, and water to meet global demand for edible fats with alternatives.

But if each of Singapore’s 5.4 million consumers avoids wasting palm oil-related products and thinks critically about how much food or toiletries we really need before buying them, wecould prevent hundreds of tonnes of food and cosmetics from being wasted – making a meaningful dent in palm oil demand. 

Indonesia’s fires have been called a crisis, an emergency, and a crime against humanity. Given the scarcity of deforestation and “haze-free” palm oil today, there’s a chance that the palm oil in our food and personal care items was produced with a devastating impact on communities and the environment.

Let’s not be flippant about buying it on the cheap and tossing it out without a second thought.

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