In this global community, it’s easier than ever to nip to the supermarket, pick up a product from the other side of the world, and not give any thought as to how it has been made. But if we’re abhorred by the exploitation and destruction wreaked on the planet by big business, our first port of call should be to use the power we have as consumers properly.
It’s not enough to try and off-set the balance by giving to charity, for instance, if our day-to-day purchases cause more damage than £10 a month can solve. Below are two incidentally vegan products that you could quickly and easily eliminate from your shopping cart, or replace with ethically manufactured equivalents, and do more good for the planet in your weekly visit to Sainsbury’s than turning off lightbulbs and cycling to work ever could (though please, do those things as well).
Palm oil is the food equivalent of fossil fuels. Just as the production of crude oils for energy has led to the exploitation of native peoples, the destruction of habitats, and mass extinctions, so too has the palm oil industry wreaked havoc in its hunt for this highly useful oil. The rainforests of Malaysia and Indonesia have been hit the hardest, with these two regions accounting for 85% of global palm oil production. The orangutang in particular has suffered due to the frequent burning of its habitat to clear areas for palm oil production.
Palm oil can be found in almost all processed foods, as well as many nut butters and pastes. Thankfully, products containing ethically-sourced palm oil, as well as palm-oil free products, are becoming more common as awareness grows about this controversial product.
When all’s said and done, though, remember that animal agriculture is responsible for 91% of the Amazon rainforest’s destruction, where land is cleared either to make room for the animals themselves or to grow the crops they are fed. So, if the forests are your concern (and they really should be), it’s not enough to just cut out the palm oil.
Coconut oil and coconut water
Coconut oil has been hailed as something of a panacea recently. It can be spread on toast or melted in a frying pan to sauté with; outside of the kitchen, it’s a moisturiser, a lubricant and even a mouthwash of sorts. Coconut water, so long as it’s from young coconuts, unpasteurised, and not from concentrate, is an excellent source of electrolytes and water that does wonders for the body, especially after exercise.
Sadly, though, the coconut which produced your oil and water could very possibly have been one of up to a 1000 handpicked in a single day by an enslaved monkey. Like palm oil, South-East Asia is a major producer of coconuts, with Indonesia alone producing up to 18 million tonnes. Footage from a monkey training school in Koh Phangan, Thailand, shows the highly intelligent primates scaling trees and releasing the coconuts, which are hard for humans to acquire without specialised equipment. The monkeys have chains round their necks, which are yanked on by their trainers to force them into submission. This practice might be rooted in the fact that young coconuts are prized for the nutritional superiority to more mature coconuts, meaning that, by the time a coconut falls from the tree, its value has already dipped massively.
Of course, nobody’s perfect – a vegan lifestyle seeks to avoid as far as possible causing suffering to other living beings. It’d be almost impossible to ensure that every piece of fruit, every vegetable, and every bag of nuts you purchase on the move, comes from a sustainable, organic farm which pays its workers a fair wage and does not exploit them with inhumane hours. But, it’s easier than you think to make this kind of food the majority of your diet.
Thankfully, palm oil and coconut products are not inherently unethical, and ethically sourced brands are both available and growing in popularity. It’s always important to check the label – often you will have to pay a higher price for the peace of mind. Budgeting elsewhere (perhaps buying one less pint that week) makes the extra few pounds a small price to pay in order to do your bit to help protect the planet.
What are some other foods with controversial manufacturing processes? Let us know in the comments below.