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Global politics of “sustainable” palm oil

Image: Craig, Oil palms in Malaysia, Wikimedia Commons, Public domain
Image: Craig, Oil palms in Malaysia, Wikimedia Commons, Public domain

This paper outlines the difficulties of governing the complex global palm oil supply chain, examines the narratives around the environmental and social sustainability of palm oil and analyses how power dynamics create a fragmented governance structure for palm oil. The author concludes that the palm oil industry has created a narrative in which only “unsustainable” palm oil production is to blame for negative environmental and social effects, and in which “sustainable” palm oil - and an increase in its production - is presented as being beneficial for conservation and local communities.​


The palm oil industry is increasingly certifying its activities as “sustainable,” “responsible,” and “conflict-free.” This trend does not represent a breakthrough toward better governance, this article argues, but primarily reflects a business strategy to channel criticism toward “unsustainable” palm oil, while promoting the value for protecting rainforests of corporate social responsibility, international trade, industrial production, and industry-guided certification. Illegalities and loopholes riddle certification in Indonesia and Malaysia, the two main sources of certified palm oil; at the same time, palm oil imports are rising in markets not demanding certification. Across the tropics, oil palm plantations linked to deforestation and human rights abuses are continuing to expand as companies navigate weak governance rules, and as sales shift across markets and inside global supply chains. Theoretically, this analysis advances the understanding of why and how the power of business is rising over the narratives and institutions of global agricultural governance.



Dauvergne, P., 2018. The Global Politics of the Business of “Sustainable” Palm Oil. Global Environmental Politics, (Early Access), pp.34-52.

Read the full paper here. See also the Foodsource resource How do food systems affect land-use and biodiversity?

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