I’ve never seen an orangutan in person, but I will do so one day. Like the other great apes, however, orangutans face an uncertain future.
According to the IUCN, habitat destruction, primarily for planting oil palms, is a leading threat to orangutan survival. Frustratingly, palm oil is extremely lucrative for corporations, and sadly, appeals to morality are often trumped by the drive for economic viability. This is where technology can prove a game-changer.
The influence of technology in streamlining conservation efforts on the ground cannot be overstated. But ape lovers have an enormous opportunity to make a difference from afar with technology we use every day.
We need to choose what kind of world we wish to inherit.One with forests and wild orangutans or barren wastelands and cheap cooking oil?—
Birute Mary Galdikas (@DrBirute) August 13, 2012
Social networking has already provided a call to action for me personally. Every day my Twitter feed fills with stories from the field, some of triumph, some of loss. Tweets from Dr. Birute M. Galdikas, Michelle Desilets, and others have inspired me to flex my consumer muscle and vote with my wallet. I completely stopped buying or using products with palm oil or palm oil derivatives.
Sound easy? It wasn’t. Palm oil is in a lot of common products. I have spent hours combing through the fine print on ingredients labels looking for any hint of palm oil and then trying to find alternatives without it. The most common reaction I got (I’ve been sharing this effort online): “That is really great, but I wouldn’t have the patience.”
Most people wouldn’t. I believe that most people will do the right thing when doing so is easy, but spending three hours looking at shampoo is “hard-core”; most people I know, even those who care, won’t spend that kind of time. So I started working on something bigger.
My Idea: Barcode Activism
I’ve created a database of over 3,000 products containing palm oil. It lists each product’s name, Universal Product Code (UPC), manufacturer contact information, and comparably priced alternatives without palm oil. I’ve also written letters to each manufacturer saying that I will no longer be buying any products that contain palm oil ingredients and will switch from the product in question to the sustainable alternative. I am turning this into a mobile app.
The technology exists to turn this into a barcode-scanning app, which would use the UPC to find the product in my database. If the product is in my database, the other database information will also appear, telling the user what alternatives are available, and allowing him or her to send an instant letter—my pre-written letter—to the manufacturer over the mobile network, requiring only an electronic signature.
This gives people who love apes, but don’t know how to help, an easy way to act; it simultaneously puts manufacturers on notice that demand for their products is being squeezed by the ethical concerns of conscientious consumers armed with social media and mobile technology. Let’s use technology to tell companies who use palm oil in their products that forest destruction in Indonesia and throughout Central Africa is unacceptable—and we expect action.
Thank you to the Great Apes Survival Partnership (GRASP) for the opportunity to share this idea on their Facebook page. Visit their website For information on their work and the upcoming 2nd GRASP Council.
Video credit: Borneo Orangutan Survival.