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!