Palm Oil – Just Saying No Isn’t Enough Anymore

Originally Posted: July 21, 2016, Updated: April 1, 2019

An orangutan mother sits in a tree with her baby in a habitat preserved from deforestation.

There’s a problem with America and palm oil: The disaster in Indonesia has been out of sight for so long, we’re years behind as a country and a culture. We’re still at the point where just saying no to palm oil is perceived as a principled position. It’s not.


The Dangers of Being Righteous From Afar

More than one of our customers has been criticized, recently, for using palm oil in their soaps. They use it, of course, because we do. But then, we’ve also heard from people who think using lye to make soap — which, incidentally, is how it’s made — “isn’t very organic.”

Misguided palm-oil criticism — failing to understand or be aware of the differences between sustainable and unsustainable palm oil — might be funny in the way that misinformation about trivial matters can be funny and silly. Palm oil isn’t trivial, though, and misinformation has real, negative consequences.

Some misinformation has come in the form of criticism affecting our customers’ businesses and reputations. Which is especially sad, since by using sustainable palm oil in the soaps we make, we’re including our customers in doing the right thing, being part of building a sustainable market and future, an alternative to the nightmare of Indonesia. The true victims of misinformation, though, are the people and future of that part of the world. Just saying no does nothing for them.


The Nature of Palm Oil

Because of the controversy that surrounds its production, most industry players dismiss palm oil as a viable resource. This is yet another shortcoming of just saying no to palm oil all together.

Palm oil by nature is actually an incredibly sustainable crop. Palm trees do not have to be replanted annually like other crops, which means they store more carbon. Their fruit is composed of about 50 percent oil, a much higher yield than vegetable oils — allowing palm oil farmers to produce five to eight times as much palm oil than its vegetable oil competition. Additionally, smallholder palm oil farms have lifted a large number of people out of poverty in countries like Indonesia, increasing their quality of life dramatically.

As a soap ingredient, palm oil offers numerous benefits to the skin, including anti-aging, cleansing and moisturizing qualities. Palm oil contains a refatting agent that restores skin’s natural oil, rather than stripping it away like many detergent-based soaps.



What Just Saying No Leaves Untouched

Everything. Dismissing palm oil entirely doesn’t affect how many products contain palm oil. It doesn’t expose the producers referring to palm oil as vegetable oil or leaving it off ingredients labels altogether. It doesn’t alter rampant habitat or peat-forest destruction. It doesn’t save orangutans. It doesn’t restore palm plantations to indigenous family farms, and it doesn’t curb human trafficking or help the victims of human rights abuses. What it does is allow the appearance of concern and virtue thousands of miles away without the substance or the work.


What’s Still Possible

The truth is, it’s already too late for many things — for much of the peat forests, for many indigenous farms, significant portions of orangutan populations and the victims of human trafficking. It’s not too late, though, to commit to building a different future, a sustainable one, to prevent the present from becoming the future. There needs to be awareness, then putting that awareness to work in the companies we choose to subsidize and who we align ourselves with — companies committed to the sustainable growth of palm trees, that hold the necessary certifications, that don’t destroy habitats to make profits.

It has to be more than talk. The problem with just saying no is that’s what it’s become — just talk — and talk does nothing to solve the problem.


A tractor sorts hundreds of red-orange palm fruit bundles in Indonesia.

2 thoughts on “Palm Oil – Just Saying No Isn’t Enough Anymore

  1. Greetings,
    I feel like I’m missing something in this article, it seems rhetorical. Can you give any substantiating info or clear examples of the ” sustainable” cultivation of palm oil .
    I believe Bitanie to be an ethically- based company, but also feel it’s important to not assume that ethical standards are kept when not checked & challenged regularly, particularly when related to ” bottom line” profits.
    ‘Sustainable’ has become a very over-used ( and incorrectly used) term of late. I think it’s important to clarify semantically your definition of the term.
    I am unfamiliar with any “sustainable” practices around palm oil production, and would be delighted to know about any that exist.

    • Ann – I’m interested in hearing examples of “sustainable” being used incorrectly. I hear it a lot in conversation, used for the most part figuratively. I can’t say I’m surprised, though, since we live in an industry where people are continually trying to appear organic and natural without doing the work or paying the money. I’m not sure how you’re using rhetorical, though. But to your question, sustainability of our palm oil has been a fairly big deal for us, and the industry, for a few years.

      We’ve written a few blogs on the subject, the first of which traces the supply chain of the palm oil we use but also addresses the basics of the idea of providing an alternative to the palm oil currently produced unsustainably:

      The upshot is, the bulk of palm oil is produced on plantations that are the root of all kinds of horrible stuff. Our point in the latest blog was that “just saying no to” palm oil in general doesn’t change anything. But making sustainably sourced palm oil part of everyday business and the products we produce is what’s needed to change the market.

      Thanks for the comment,

      Scott Davidson

Comments are closed.