“If the only palm oil we could find was produced unsustainably, we’d change what we do.”
The controversy surrounding palm oil isn’t going away. According to GreenPalm and Rainforest Rescue – two environmental groups with international reach – one of every two products on supermarket shelves, from cookies, crackers, and processed foods to cosmetics and baby shampoo, contains palm oil. Some sources report that number to be lower. The Palm Oil Campaign conducted by A-Z Animals – an online animal encyclopedia – estimates that only one in 10 products contains palm oil.
The Costs of Cheap Production
Estimates can vary, based on how palm oil is listed on ingredient labels. Many manufacturers would rather not use the exact name, so they list “vegetable oil” on their product labels. But there’s no disagreement on the ever-increasing demand or the fact that far too much of the palm oil currently used is produced unsustainably.
Palm fruit oil – or, more commonly, palm oil – comes from the African oil palm (Elaeis guineensis), a tree whose fruit is rare in producing two oils that are distinctly different in their composition. Palm fruit oil comes from the pulp, or mesocarp, of the fruit. Palm kernel oil come from the inner kernel, or nut-like core.
Much of the demand for palm oil is manufacturer-driven. Palm oil is cheap to produce. Its transfat level is low, which appeals to consumers, and due to the high oil content of the fruit, it’s far more productive per acre than other oils.
With cheapness, though, comes the controversy. Palm oil is cheap to produce partly because manufacturers, in conjunction with local governments, have been able to avoid the environmental and human-rights costs of production. In Malaysia, Indonesia, and Southeast Asia, the development of large-scale palm plantations has resulted in massive deforestation, destruction of animal habitat, and displacement of family farms and indigenous populations.
Certain aspects of the controversy have changed for the better, due to the global efforts of Greenpeace, GreenPalm, and the Rainforest Alliance, as well as regionally-focused environmental groups and wide-ranging publications, such as WholeFoods Magazine. The real work toward a sustainable future, though, is just beginning. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), a partnership of producers, purchasers, and non-governmental environmental groups has undertaken to engage its 400 members in the transformation of markets, making sustainable palm oil the norm.
Toward that end, there are four upwardly-compliant levels of RSPO certification, each level more demanding in its requirements. Having four levels is intended to allow prospective members who might be years away from full compliance to join the sustainability effort and work toward fuller compliance of their own. Critics of the RSPO see the partnership as too accepting and too lenient, except at its most stringent levels of certification.
Why We Use Palm Oil
At Botanie Soap, we use palm fruit oil in the base-oil mix for our soaps. We also offer organic palm fruit oil for sale. As an ingredient, palm oil contributes to the hardness of soap – how long the bars last. It also adds to the soap’s lathering properties and enhances the bar’s ability to moisturize and be kind to skin. Overall, it’s a prime contributor to a great organic soap.
Still, if the only palm oil we could find was produced unsustainably, we’d change what we do. Thanks to the efforts of Greenpeace and others, it’s possible to find suppliers committed to the future, who have undergone scrutiny and been found to be truthful and transparent. The supplier we use at Botanie Soap – Ciranda, of Wisconsin – is the first American company to be granted a 100% sustainable identity by the most stringent RSPO criteria. Ciranda is certified both Fair Trade and EcoSocial and works with a sustainable partner in northeastern Brazil – AgroPalma – that Greenpeace called a blueprint for the rest of the palm-oil industry.
Building Palm Oil’s Future
As long as palm oil remains as versatile as it is, demand will be high. Some soapmakers and consumers have sworn off palm oil entirely, as their way of affecting the industry. At Botanie Soap, we support that position, knowing there are many ways to change the world. For our part, we’ve chosen to support the efforts of suppliers who work exclusively with organic, fair-trade farms and, in doing so, be a part of building palm oil’s brighter, sustainable future.