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GREENINGS: Don’t fall prey to marketing

March 9th, 2016 · No Comments

Make informed choices when buying green

By Terri Chu

One great thing about living in the Annex is that there are lots of places to buy green products. (Though losing Grassroots means there are not a lot of places to refill shampoo bottles.) I find myself taking this for granted and not always carefully reading the labels on products I buy, trusting that they have been sourced by stores that share the same ethical values that I do.

Global demand for palm oil is the leading cause of rainforest deforestation in Indonesia and Malaysia.

Accommodating a friend’s dietary choices, I bought a vegan baking block made by Earth Balance to make pastry. I didn’t look carefully, and the word vegan satisfied me at the time as a low impact product with an environmentally sounding company name. When I got the product home, I realized it was made with mostly palm oil. I was immediately sick to my stomach. If my friend was choosing to go vegan for ethical rather than health reasons, well, I would have done less damage to the environment and harmed fewer animals by baking with a stick of lard. At least that way, only one animal would have died in the process, and if it was lard from my friend’s organic farm, it was an animal that was treated well while it lived.

According to the United Nations Environment Programme, global demand for palm oil is the leading cause of rainforest deforestation in Indonesia and Malaysia, home to the critically endangered orangutan. A quick Google search for “orangutan” and “palm oil” will lead to images of orangutans burned alive in a bid to clear land for plantations. The slash and burn method of land clearing contributed to last year’s Indonesian forest fire crisis that saw 19 people killed and half a million people treated for respiratory illnesses (though it did not receive a lot of media coverage).

Orangutan habitat is disappearing at a rate of about 300 soccer fields every hour thanks to the demand for plantations.

Indonesia is doing what it can to curb the slash and burn practice but policing is near impossible for a stretched government where corruption is high. With palm oil so cheap to produce and the trees so lucrative to grow, most people take their chances in bettering their own situations rather than thinking about the climate as a whole. It’s hard to blame the subsistence farmer. For our part, we can at least decrease the demand and by extension the profitability of burning rainforest land in favour of palm oil plantations.

To add insult to injury, the fires last year cost the Indonesian government about $16 billion while the value of the palm oil plantations is estimated to be $8 billion. The Indonesian public is subsidizing hefty profits for a few, thanks to the demand we place on an unsustainable product.

Palm oil lurks in so many products. It is often called just plain old vegetable oil, although sterate, stearyl, sodium lauryl sulphate, and sodium laureth sulphate are among its many other monikers. It won’t be possible to bring our consumption to zero, but making a point to read the ingredient list or even writing to manufacturers of your favourite products could alleviate demand even that little bit.

The lesson for me out of this was not just to accept a pretty green label as being green. The products we choose to buy (or not to buy) have an impact on the environment. Everything from the obvious (Keurig coffee pods anyone?) to the more completely green washed Fiji water has environmental consequences.

Those of us lucky enough to be able to afford to make purchasing decisions based on environmental or ethical reasons shouldn’t be duped by good marketing.

We have to think about the entire life cycle of the products we buy, and not be fooled by the green packaging.

Terri Chu is an engineer committed to practical environmentalism. This column is dedicated to helping the community reduce energy, and help distinguish environmental truths from myths. Send questions, comments, and ideas for future columns to


Also by Terri Chu:

Reduce, reuse, then recycle (February 2016)

The power of labelling (January 2016)




Tags: Annex · Opinion