Date of Award

Spring 2021

Degree Type



Moore School of Business

Director of Thesis

Dr. Andrew Spicer

First Reader

Dr. Sali Li

Second Reader

Dr. Sali Li


The goal of this thesis is to critically analyze the sustainability of the rapidly growing palm oil industry in order to diagnose whether the benefits of production outweigh the varied costs incurred by stakeholders, how the industry can be improved, and what analytical tools consumers can use to make better purchasing decisions. The body of the thesis begins with a discussion on sustainability definitions and determines that for this paper, sustainability will be defined as analyzing the socioeconomic and environmental effects of palm oil and how they affect different actors of the value chain in order to allow for prescriptions of improvement. The next section identifies the main stakeholders of the industry as larger plantations/companies, smallholder farmers, the communities in producing countries, governments, certifying boards, and consumers. It is determined that although there are uneven power shares among the value chain, the actors are all influenced by the decisions and pressures of the others. Next, preexisting literature including case studies and scientific studies are analyzed in order to explain both the positive and negative socioeconomic and environmental effects that palm oil has. It is determined that the harms discussed are not unique to palm oil and are often less detrimental than that of alternative industries. Therefore, external and internal stakeholders need to work together to influence positive change versus denouncing the industry altogether. I suggest that the focus should be on encouraging more sustainability certification and regulation, supporting smallholders with education and resources, and demanding more accountability from the industry. To conclude, I discuss how this research and analysis can be applied to better understand complex industries and sustainability labels to make informed consumer and activist decisions.

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© 2021, Leah Marie Roberts