How to make a global impact from home

March 18, 2024

Palm-to-Palm’s goal is to show how the products we choose to buy impact what’s happening on the other side of the world — and what we can do.

Photo of Professor Francine Dolins and grad student Harry Rahn
Associate Professor Francine Dolins and graduate student Harry Rahn are in the organization Palm-to-Palm. Photo by Julianne Lindsey

When eating an Oreo, we often twist off the chocolatey crisp top and eat the icing on the inside, not thinking much about what ingredients are going into our bodies. “I didn’t think about it much either,” says environmental science graduate student Harry Rahn. “But the more I learned about what’s in the products we consume and use everyday — like how Oreos are made with palm oil — it got my attention.”

Rahn is a leader in Palm-to-Palm, an organization started at UM-Dearborn that supports primate protection, human health and wildlife conservation by educating people about the social and environmental injustices around palm oil production. Palm oil is used in products from cleaning items to cosmetics to food products and more. 

“Palm oil production happens in other countries, so we may not be thinking about it or know what it is,” says primatologist and comparative psychology Associate Professor Francine Dolins, the faculty advisor and member of Palm-to-Palm. “Large-scale production of palm oil has a very negative impact on local human communities and the native wildlife.”

In addition to detrimental effects on cardiovascular health because it is high in saturated fats, Dolins says these negative impacts include clearing forests for palm oil plantations and destroying critical habitat for endangered wildlife species. Giant palm oil companies also are known to exploit local communities and vulnerable workers on these plantations based across multiple countries with tropical forests.

“Oil palms can only grow in tropical regions and tropical forests are the lungs for the earth. We are destroying them at a rapid rate for extractive products such as palm oil,” Dolins says. “Palm-to-Palm’s goal is to let people know how what we choose to buy here in the global north impacts what is happening on the other side of the world in the global south — and what we can do to lessen the negative impact.”

Since beginning in 2020, Palm-to-Palm has made large gains in their mission.

The small organization — made up of Dolins, Rahn, alum Daniel Arini, community member Jenny Panergo, as well as a high school student in Boston, Evie Reese — has become a partner of Roots and Shoots USA, a youth action program of the Jane Goodall Institute, a global conservation organization.

Through extensive research, they’ve uncovered alleged workplace and human rights abuses by the PHC Palm Oil Plantation in the Democratic Republic of Congo, including violence and forced labor. Providing video footage, recorded testimonies and other proof of management abuses they obtained from villager workers, Palm-to-Palm’s documentation convinced the University of Michigan to divest from the company. U-M then took that documentation to other major PHC investors, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which ultimately divested as well. Palm-to-Palm worked with the international nonprofit news organization GRAIN to secure documentation.

Daniel J. Arini
Daniel Arini, 2021 alum

“We all want to do things to make a difference. I had no idea that all of our small steps would help relieve workplace strife in another country,” says Arini, a 2021 graduate who now works with the Michigan Economic Development Corporation as a climate fellow.

The group also developed an online calculator to help companies and institutions quantify and reduce the percentage of palm oil usage. And they’ve created a certification program to recognize organizations that reduce their usage of palm oil products. Email the group to learn more about the calculator. 

“We created the calculator and certification to raise awareness in the global north in an effort to talk truth to power,” Arini says. “We know palm oil cannot be fully boycotted — it’s in too many products. But this calculator will help companies see how much palm oil they are using for awareness. And the certification process will assist our partners in quantifying the impact of their sustainability education, advocacy and service initiatives.”

The team will present the first certification to UM-Dearborn leadership at their “Inside the Activist’s Studio”, an event from 1 to 3 p.m. Thursday, March 21, at the Environmental Interpretive Center’s auditorium. Palm-to-Palm members worked with the university’s facilities team to do an assessment of palm oil in cleaning supplies, which showed only minimal use of palm oil products. Interested in attending? RSVPThey are currently in talks with Eastern Michigan University, Henry Ford College, UM-Ann Arbor and UM-Flint on certification and how to use the palm oil calculator tool.

The group also will recognize 2001 alum Allen Attee, owner of Picasso Restaurant Group, for reducing the number of food products prepared and sold by his company that contain palm oil and labeling the ones that do. “Allen and his team were amazing to work with,” Rahn says. “We learned they do not use palm oil in their cooking and they reduced the packaged products they sell that do contain palm oil. They took action and did things like replacing potato chips that do contain palm oil with Michigan-made products, like Great Lakes Potato Chips, that don’t.”

Dolins says palm oil production is a complex issue, and she understands that avoiding it completely isn’t feasible. For example, Dolins says buying products that don’t contain palm oil products may cost more — so it might not be economically viable for someone to avoid those products. But that is where the education component comes in. 

“Sometimes the world’s problems seem so large, we don’t know where to start. We want you to know that you can do something — you can be an educated consumer even if you can’t make other changes yet. Education is action,” Dolins says. “Even little steps add up to big differences in our lives and in the lives of people and our primate friends around the world.”

Article by Sarah Tuxbury