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.
Concern from Beyond Borders
For America and Western Europe, the consequences of unsustainable palm oil production have remained mostly out of sight. Unlike GMOs or the triclosan used in anti-bacterial soaps, palm oil hasn’t had the advantage of being in front of us every day. As a result, our awareness is dated. It’s already too late for a comfortable position.
Just Saying No causes producers to go underground and manufacturers to use deceptive labeling. Replacing palm oil with another oil, given the amount of oil that palm trees produce per acre, would generate two to four times the environmental impact. The only real answer is the development of a sustainable market. It would help immensely if Europe would stop using palm oil as a bio-fuel, but the long-term answer is sustainable production. Even for those of us playing catch-up, there are ways to be a part of a better future.
What to Do
The best first step is research. Knowing the issues and their complexities for yourself makes it personal and far more immediate. There are wonderful resources for getting up to speed quickly. The news isn’t going to be good, but it’s important news to have.
The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) is a great place to start. They’re tackling a giant problem – with a lot of help – and as the most visible organization frequently get criticized for not having waved their wand and fixed everything already. Which can happen when the realities of a problem are so far away and it’s why researching and appreciating the scope of things is so important. The World Wildlife Fund, which works with the RSPO, is also a great resource for what the sustainability issues are and what can be done.
TriplePundit, an online platform for global media, lists 10 companies committed to sustainable palm oil. GreenPalm, which works with the RSPO certification program, has a great page that addresses the big picture with good bullet points and graphics.
As you’ll discover, the news isn’t good, and the solutions aren’t quick or simple. But there are concerned people out there doing serious work that will benefit us all. The key is growing the numbers of the concerned.