You’ve probably heard of palm oil. Even if not, you are probably using or consuming it. But while the controversial substance has made headlines in recent years, the truth around palm oil production can still be slippery. To mark International Orangutan Day and pay tribute to the critically endangered species, we’re here to help you get a grip on the facts.
Palm oil is a type of vegetable oil, sourced from the fruit of oil palm. It is one of the most useful and versatile ingredients in the world, found in everything from biscuits, ice cream and margarine to soap and lipstick, even biodiesel fuel. Some 70% of beauty or personal care products feature palm oil, and there is barely a kitchen cupboard or a bathroom cabinet in the world that doesn’t contain it in some form.
A natural emulsifier, palm oil is prized for its stable high cooking temperature, smooth and creamy texture, absence of scent and the natural preservative effect which can extend the shelf life of products. As the highest yield crop in terms of land use, it’s also the least expensive vegetable oil in the world – which unsurprisingly makes it attractive to a wide range of manufacturers. But this popularity comes at a cost.
More than 50 million tonnes of palm oil is currently produced per year to meet the huge demand. The growth of oil palm plantations is destroying huge chunks of the rainforest at an alarming speed. Greenpeace reports that in Indonesia alone, an area the size of a football pitch is lost every 25 seconds.
The impact of this deforestation on ecosystems and biodiversity is devastating, with countless animal species losing their homes – most notably orangutans, who spend their long, peaceful lives dwelling high up in tree canopies. Orangutan numbers on the island of Borneo more than halved between 1999 and 2015, thanks mainly to palm oil production.
With this decimation come significant problems for humans too. Between August and October 2015 alone, ‘slash and burn’ fires used to clear land in Indonesia released up to 600 million tonnes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Tropical forests help to cool the planet and protect against climate change. As Ashley Leiman, Founder of Orangutan Foundation, points out: “Conservation is more than protecting a species. It is about saving nature which includes us, ‘the fifth great ape’.”
Social issues pollute the industry too. Butterfly Mark Certified Weleda tells us: “Reports from plantations in Indonesia reveal that palm oil production often involves violation of human rights in the form of poor working conditions, social injustice and conflicts over land. Indigenous peoples are often affected by its cultivation, evicted from their land and deprived of their livelihood.”
So, we might conclude: boycott palm oil. But as with so many environmental issues, the answer isn’t quite as simple.
For one thing, palm oil is a master of disguise. While palm oil and palm kernel oil are easy enough to spot on an ingredients list, it has countless different aliases and derivatives. These include: vegetable oil, vegetable fat, palm fruit oil, palmate, palmitate, palmolein, glyceryl, stearate, stearic acid, elaeis guineensis, palmitic acid, palm stearine, palmitoyl oxostearamide, palmitoyl tetrapeptide-3, sodium lauryl sulfate, sodium kernelate, etyl palmitate, octyl palmitate, palmityl alcohol and more. Hunting it out on labels is a game of hide-and-seek that most shoppers simply aren’t equipped to play.
To make things easier for conscious consumers, increasing numbers of organic food companies and clean beauty brands are proud to offer palm oil-free products. Butterfly Mark Certified Inlight Beauty favours the soothing properties of coconut oil. “It possesses antimicrobial and antifungal properties due to the medium-chain fatty acids, and is often used to reduce inflammation,” the brand says. “Although more expensive to source, coconut oil is not associated with any harm to the environment or the ecosystem, so for us it is a better choice overall.”
Meanwhile, handmade cosmetics brand Lush has developed its own soap base using organic cocoa butter, coconut oil, castor oil and sodium hydroxide to achieve a palm-free lather.
However, not all oils are created equal. It’s important to note that palms have a significantly higher yield per plant than many alternatives like soybean, sunflower and rapeseed – meaning much more land could potentially be ravaged to produce comparable stocks of oil. Some oils are far more costly, which could drive up the price of food and household products for people who are already struggling. Not to mention the important role that palm oil plays in the reduction of global poverty. Some 4.5 million people across Indonesia and Malaysia are employed in the industry, so ceasing production could have a ruinous impact on farmers, their families and their local economies.
Thankfully, there is another way. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) is a global organisation looking to clean up palm oil’s supply chain. In order to be Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO), producers have to meet a set of stringent environmental and social criteria, including a reduced use of pesticides and fires, fair treatment of workers, consulting with local communities before the development of new plantations and most crucially, that no primary forests, fragile ecosystems or areas with significant concentrations of biodiversity (such as endangered species like orangutans) can be cleared.
One member of the RSPO is Weleda, which sources its single-origin organic palm oil from a Brazilian producer with the very highest certification. “We insist on guaranteed traceability so that we can tell where our palm oil originated and check these conditions,” says the brand. “We don’t pretend this is easy. Lack of transparency within the market for processed raw materials continues to make it difficult to achieve full traceability all the way along the supply chain.”
In addition to responsible sourcing, Weleda has joined forces with non-profit Borneo Orangutan Survival on a vital project to help reforest 55 hectares of rainforest land and provide a safe home for future generations of orangutans. “The project will start by securing the land rights of the inhabitants of Mantangai Hulu so they can maintain their economic independence,” explains the brand. “When suitable areas have been identified and prepared, reforestation with over 55,000 trees will begin. On five of the 55 hectares, timber will be planted so villagers can make a long-term living.”
Butterfly Mark Certified ARgENTUM Apothecary is another Positive Luxury brand striving to find more sustainable solutions. The brand uses only RSPO palm oil in its products where palm oil is needed, including its award-winning moisturiser La Potion Infinie.
“For every product we create, we ask the same three questions of the ingredients we use. Are they good for your skin? Are they natural, or from natural origins? And are they socially and environmentally sustainable?” explains CEO and founder Joy Isaacs. “In educating ourselves, we can help find the key to the success of sustainability and the future of our planet. It’s about taking an ethical approach, that is not extreme, and doing what we can to find the perfect balance.”
As more businesses wake up to the threat of deforestation and work towards that balance, using and consuming palm oil responsibly will become easier. This year, the International Natural and Organic Cosmetics Association (NATRUE) is updating its certification criteria to include strict rules on the sustainable sourcing of palm oil. “Beauty buyers around the world will know at a glance from the NATRUE seal on pack whether a beauty product is one they can choose with a clean conscience,” says Director General, Mark Smith.
Meanwhile membership of the RSPO has more than doubled in the past five years, and today approximately 19% of the world’s palm oil is certified to its standards. Until the day that figure stands at 100%, reading our labels and choosing brands who source their ingredients with transparency and integrity is one of the best things we can do. For the orangutans, and for everyone.