Happy Sloth Day

Oct. 19, 2021

The new face of the sustainable palm oil movement.

When I saw the email with the subject line “International Sloth Day is October 20th!”, I thought it meant I was getting the day off.

But it turns out they’re talking about sloths, those furry creatures that hang off tree branches in the tropics. The email was from Palm Done Right, an advocacy group that wants to draw attention to the negative aspects of palm oil.

To be specific: the negative aspects of its harvesting. Palm oil has plenty of negatives on its own, most notably its utter unhealthiness, with 7 grams of saturated fat per tablespoon.

The harvesting isn’t any healthier. For decades, ecologists have raised concerns about rainforest and other regions getting demolished for oil palms, the trees whose fruits and kernels are pressed to make the oil. Many of the tropical regions where this occurs are underdeveloped nations with strong incentives to favor short-term economic development over ecological considerations.

But for all these negatives, palm oil is still ubiquitous: It amounts to about a third of all edible oils made from oilseeds globally. Palm oil deserves an exhibit in the I Just Can’t Quit You Hall of Fame: food ingredients that receive nothing but (deserved) bad publicity but remain in high demand because they’re just so useful.

Because it solidifies at room temperature (a function of its saturated fat), it serves well as a base for margarine and other spreads. That same aspect makes it good for baked goods, especially when the alternatives, like shortening, have the same problem with saturated fat. In addition, it has numerous non-food uses, including soap and other personal care products. Palm Done Right estimates that nearly 50% of packaged products on supermarket shelves use palm oil.

So groups like Palm Done Right have their work cut out for them. To be clear, PDR isn’t against palm oil per se. The organization comprises “brands, farmers, retailers, brokers, distributors and manufacturers” who want to establish sources of palm oil that are wildlife-friendly and do not involve deforestation.

So PDR is putting this on the narrow shoulders of sloths. “While sloths are cute and cuddly, unfortunately, they are also vulnerable and need our help,” goes the first line of their email.

I see what they’re trying to do here. The loss of the rainforest has gotten a lot of attention, but it’s still kind of an abstract issue. Making sloths the cute, furry face of the rainforest is a way of humanizing, or anthropomorphizing, the issue.

But I’m not sure how far they’re going to get with this. When most people think of sloths, they think of, well, sloth. Or at least I do. Really, the only other time I have ever thought of sloths in any other context was when I saw an M.K. Brown cartoon in which one tells a TV interviewer, “Actually, I don’t like being a sloth because my pee-pee runs down my neck and my toes hurt from hanging on all the time.”

Still and all, it’s a noble cause. So on Oct. 20, I will drink to International Sloth Day. Assuming I can do that lying down.