Thoughts from The Queen Bee

Posts tagged ‘Palm oil’

So what about palm oil?

One of the most widely used oils in handmade soap is palm oil. The properties of palm oil contribute to a hard, long lasting bar with stable lather. However, over the past few years, palm oil has been increasingly in the press because of its impact on the rainforest, and more specifically the fate of the orangutan.

Palm oil is extracted from the fruit of the African palm oil tree, originally from West Africa, but can be grown anywhere there is heat and significant rainfall. Today the majority of palm oil is produced in Indonesia and Malaysia.

It is estimated that palm oil is in 50% of products, including baked goods, candy, cosmetics and cleaning products. This is due to the fact that it is one of the highest yielding sources of vegetable oil, making it more profitable than other common vegetable oils such as corn and cottonseed. The use of palm oil has doubled over the past decade, and some plantation owners in Indonesia and Malaysia have cut down acres of virgin rainforest and peat lands to plant palm trees. This has prompted concern on the part of environmentalists due to the destruction of habitat for many species, including the orangutan, as well as the increase in Greenhouse Gas Emissions due to oil palm cultivation on peat land.

Soapmakers around the world have responded in one of three ways: eliminate all palm oil from their formulas, switch to using sustainably harvested palm oil, or continue to use palm oil without thought for the source.

I considered removing palm oil from our soaps, and researched several different recipes, but I like the qualities that palm oil brings to our soap, and wasn’t happy with the substitutions, so I researched the next option….sustainably harvested palm oil. The RSPOis a not-for-profit, market-led association that represents stakeholders from seven sectors of the palm oil industry – oil palm producers, palm oil processors or traders, consumer goods manufacturers, retailers, banks and investors, environmental or nature conservation NGOs and social or developmental NGOs – to develop and implement global standards for sustainable palm oil. I won’t go in to great detail on the organization, you can check out their website for details on the participants and their objectives, and a quick Google search will highlight the various supporters and critics of the organization.

Suffice it to say that the solution is not perfect. While admirable in its intent, there are flaws including difficulty in ensuring that sustainable palm oil is not mixed with the general supply, as well as no real ability to enforce any of their mandates.

My point of view on this issue is similar to my stand on fossil fuels. As much as I would like to think we could move completely to renewable energy resources, I am a realist. The majority of people on this earth will not stop using fossil fuels until they either disappear or become so expensive that they cannot afford them. Likewise, the vast majority of consumers do not read labels, and even if they did, will not make a decision to boycott a product because of its impact on orangutans and rainforest. So how do we affect the situation?

I am a firm believer in voting with my wallet. If we stop purchasing palm oil, we are no longer part of the quantified or tracked market for palm oil sales, and we become all but invisible to the palm oil producers. However, if we take our dollars away from the traditional palm oil suppliers and direct it instead to sustainable sources, that shift of dollars will appear on annual sales analyses, and be reviewed and discussed by the palm oil producers. If enough of us make that shift, we will eventually reach the tipping point, where producers realize that there is money to be made from producing sustainable palm oil, especially since they can charge a premium for the product.

So how do we make this shift as manufacturers? Each supplier will indicate right on their product page if the palm oil is from sustainable sources. Personally, we at BumbleBee Lane SoapWorks have gone a step further, and have begun purchasing palm oil sourced from Brazil. The palm oil industry in Brazil is much smaller than the Asian market, but is being aggressively expanded. Due to decades of work on the part of environmentalists, Brazil has much stricter environmental laws to protect the rainforest, as well as aggressive plans to convert existing cattle pasture to palm oil plantations. Over 70% of the deforested land in the rainforest is currently in cattle production. Converting this land to palm oil production would benefit both the environment and the populace. Oil palm stores 6 to 7 times the carbon as cattle pasture, and employs 1 worker per 20 acres of plantation, compared to 1 worker per 500 acres for soy farming, and 1 worker for 1000+ acres on a cattle ranch. Environment 360 has a good article on the subject. If you’re looking for palm oil from Brazil, pop on over to New Directions Aromatics

Of course switching to sustainably sourced raw materials comes at a cost….sustainably harvested oil sells for twice the price of non-sustainably harvested product, but what is it worth to you to protect the environment and the animals that depend on it for survival? Remember that the next time you wonder “Why is handmade soap more expensive than my supermarket or drugstore brand?”, and read the ingredients. You may be helping to save the planet every time you take a shower!

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Which bar of handmade soap should I buy?

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(To my followers….my apologies if you receive this post twice. I accidentally deleted it after posting…should have had another cup of coffee!)
Hmmm….good question!
All you need to make soap is lye and an oil. However, if you make soap with only one oil, you won’t necessarily get what you’re looking for in a bar of soap. Each oil brings different things to the party.
For example, classic castile soap is made using only olive oil. This makes an extremely gentle soap, which is often recommended for children and those with sensitive skin. Sounds lovely, what’s the catch? Soap made with just olive oil is extremely soft, so it must cure for a minimum of 6 months to ensure that enough water evaporates from the bar to make it hard enough to last in the shower and not melt away into a puddle in your soap dish. Secondly, because olive oil is a very heavy oil, the lather may have a somewhat oily feel to it, which some people dislike, and there will not be a lot of lather.
A 100% coconut oil soap will be very cleansing, but using coconut oil as more than 30% of your total recipe will give you too much cleansing power, and your skin may be left feeling tight and dry. An all palm oil soap will be a very hard bar, but low on cleansing power and bubbles. Handmade soap recipes are carefully formulated to achieve the perfect balance of cleansing, lather, and hardness.
So how does the choice of ingredients affect the price of a bar of handmade soap? If you do a quick Google search for handmade soap, you will find literally thousands of soap makers from all around the world, with very little to distinguish between one and the other. The question I get asked most often is, “Why are some bars so cheap and some so expensive?”. There are a few things which contribute to the cost of a bar of handmade soap.
While doing your Google search, you will come across bars as small as 3 oz to some as big as 7 0z. The first thing you should do is divide the price of the soap by the number of ounces in the bar to get the cost per ounce for the soap. This ensures that you are comparing apples to apples.
The second thing to consider is ingredients. The list of possible oils to use in soap range from those at the lower end of the scale, such as corn oil, soy oil, canola oil and cottonseed oil, high end oils such as coconut oil, palm oil, and olive oil, and luxury ingredients such as cocoa butter, shea butter, babassu oil etc. The cost of a bar of soap is directly affected by the cost of the ingredients.
Next, take a look at fragrance. Are the bars scented with pure essential oils, or more inexpensive synthetic fragrance oils? If the soap maker has used essential oils, there can still be variations in the cost. For instance, the more expensive essential oils, such as patchouli and ylang ylang are available in 4 grades, and many oils, including lavender and rosemary can be sourced from many different countries. Bulgarian lavender is much more expensive than lavender grown in South Africa, and this price difference will be reflected in the final product pricing. Are the essential oils steam distilled or extracted with solvent?
How about botanical extracts? The best botanicals are grown on family farms, without pesticides and herbicides, harvested the old fashioned way and hung to dry. These botanicals will cost the soap maker more per pound than the alternatives that are grown on factory farms,  cultivated using chemicals and mechanically harvested and processed.  This will be reflected in the price of the bar of soap.
Lastly, look at packaging. You will find just as many different types of packaging as you will ingredients. There are bars wrapped in fabric and tied with twine; bars wrapped with a “cigar band” of cardstock, bars in boxes, shrink wrapped bars and those wrapped in fancy paper. All of these are good alternatives, the choice is a matter of personal taste, both on the part of the soap maker and the consumer.
The intangible that goes into the cost of a bar of soap is the time and effort on the part of the soap maker. Is the bar of soap simple and unadorned, or are there multiple colours, embeds, swirls and mounded tops? Each step added to the process should add to the cost of the final bar, as it decreases the number of bars that can be made during a given period of time. Most handmade soap makers do not take their time into account when calculating their Cost of Goods Sold, which means they set their selling price too low. While this seems like a great deal for the customer, ultimately if the selling price is too low, the business will not survive.
Some large retailers are now trying to cash in on the increasing popularity of the “all natural” movement by offering a line of handmade soap at a price which undercuts the small retailers. Don’t be sucked into this: look at the ingredients. Most likely you will find that they use one or two of the cheaper base oils, and you can be sure that they will have chosen the cheapest essential oil or fragrance oil they could find. Unfortunately, many people will buy this bar of soap, and will be left with the impression that handmade soap is nothing special.  On the contrary, a well balanced soap, handmade in small batches using quality ingredients is a purchase that you will never regret. Try it….you’ll never go back to commercial soap!
So better ingredients = more expensive bar of soap, right? Not always. Many artisans who create beautiful bars of soap using only the best ingredients price their soap too low in an effort to complete with the lowest priced product on the market, and some large brand name soaps are sold at exorbitant prices to cash in on the segment of the consumer market that believes anything expensive must be better.  So do your homework, read the labels, and if you find a bar of soap made with quality ingredients at a bargain price, do yourself a favour and buy regularly, or in quantity,  to ensure that your soap maker stays in business!
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