Maybe you've heard the hullabaloo about the evils of palm oil and the poor orangutans. It's gotten a lot of attention recently. But you might not have heard the whole story. Or you might not know why it's so important for soap. It's a thorny issue and one that I've been trying to figure out for some time. I am currently using SUSTAINABLY produced palm oil for all my soaps. The explanation is a bit long, but I'm going to start at the beginning and try to cover all the bases.
What It Is
Let’s start at the very beginning. What exactly IS palm oil? Palm oil is produced from red seed pods of the palm tree and is used as cheap cooking oil for most of the world. Large (well, mega) food manufacturers jumped on the cheapo bandwagon for profit reasons and now use palm oil in almost everything. It accounts for almost 50% of all food products in the grocery stores today – crackers, cookies, ice creams, all hydrogenated trans fats stuff. It also happens to be used a little bit in personal care products (shampoos, body washes, bar soaps).
Where It Comes From
The vast majority of palm oil comes from Indonesia. At least 85% of it comes from vast plantations of palm trees in Malaysia. Currently the world appetite has outstripped the production and there are both shortages and price increases. For impoverished nations like Borneo, Sumatra and Malaysia, the production of palm oil gives them their only opportunity at a better economy, and lifts many families out of poverty. In the rush to make more, they have been clear-cutting and devastating the natural rainforests to make land available to plant new palm plantations.
Why It’s Bad
As these rainforests are being destroyed, the natural habitats of many animals are being affected, including many endangered species, such as the Asian elephant, the Sumatran tiger, rhinoceros and Bornean orangutan. Slash and burn techniques as well as outright shooting of the wildlife, especially the orangutans, has outraged the rest of the world. These vast rain forests are incredibly important areas for climate change and our Earth's sustainability, and even for their own people’s sustainability. It’s a short-term gain for a long-term disaster.
If you’re interested in seeing first hand how it’s grown, produced and ultimately harvested – check out WWF International’s video:
Palm Oil In Soap
From a soapmaker’s point of view, palm oil is a necessity – one of the trinity of base oils used in most soap recipes. Olive oil, coconut oil and palm oil have become the foundation of soap making because they complement each other, working synergistically to make the perfect bar. Palm oil acts as a secondary lathering agent, and since it’s a solid, contributes to bar hardness, giving longevity to the life of the soap. Coconut oil produces a rich creamy lather and is a superior cleanser, while olive oil is the moisturizer, giving the soap a silky feel. As the issue has heated up, even the largest manufacturers have struggled with creating a quality product for a reasonable cost without the palm oil component.
My Tiny Stake In It
This is important to know: the degree to which palm oil is used in cosmetics, including soaps, is quite small. I’ve heard various statistics ranging from 1% to 6% of the total amount of production in the entire world goes towards cosmetics. The remaining 99% is used for food production. Given that my small cottage soap business is the tiniest sliver of that maybe 5% globally, I want to do the right thing but I need to keep it in perspective too. It’s my only source of income, and losing business by doubling my soap prices is not an option. Or losing all my customers because I suddenly had an inferior product doesn’t work either. My beliefs and personal responsibility are at the heart of everything I do, however, so I knew I had to find an answer and take action.
Sustainable Palm Oil
Ultimately, I would prefer to create a better recipe that does not use palm oil at all, but that’s still in the experiment stage. In the meantime, I have found a fairly priced, reliable supply of sustainable palm oil, certified and sanctioned by the RSPO (Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil).
Starting a few months ago, all the Soapworks Studio soaps have been made with sustainable palm oil. I am in the process of transitioning all the labels and ingredient lists to reflect this change.
The Bigger Problem
As I mentioned, food products account for the vast majority of the palm oil production. As long as companies continue using palm oil, the Indonesian and Malaysian governments will allow the clearing and burning of rainforests to develop new plantations. Oil palm trees are so lucrative that governments and businesses only see dollar signs.
It’s not the cooking of households and street food vendors in Indonesia that are making this such a hot button issue. It’s PepsiCo, Kraft, Heinz, and other corporate food conglomerates. Palm Oil and its derivatives are packed into almost everything we see as walk down the grocery store aisles. Packaged foods of every kind -- ice cream, cookies, crackers, chips, chocolate products, cereals, breakfast bars, dry and canned soups, margarine, cake mixes, doughnuts, frozen sweets and meals, infant formula, yes, even Skittles (and holy crapola! Girl Scout cookies!!). In the US alone palm oil imports have jumped 485% in the last decade.
Obviously any steps we can take individually to slow down or stop our consumption of this product is important. And if you want to know more, or do more, including signing petitions or sending letters, a great place to start is the Rain Forest Action Network.
Questions? Do you have something to share about this? Please join the discussion in the comments below.
And if you want to know more about all the ingredients I use in my products, check out my FAQ here. Or see my other blog posts, with in-depth descriptions of ingredients by clicking on the label "Ingredient Insider" below.