You may have heard a thing or two about palm oil lately. Probably mostly you’ve heard that it’s bad, and you might have even added it to your shockingly long (and possibly neglected) mental list of things you’re supposed to be avoiding. We’re here to break down the palm oil problem and provide you with some simple solutions to keep your conscience clear.
First of all, what is Palm Oil?
Palm Oil is a type of vegetable oil that comes from the African oil palm and is actually the “most widely consumed vegetable oil on the planet” according to the World Wildlife Fund, despite a lot of us maybe never having heard of it until this past year. It’s in everything from shampoo, soap, and cosmetics to detergents and about 50% of the packaged food we eat. The likelihood is that, at this very moment, you have something derived from palm oil in your home, in your purse, and maybe even in your lunch. Sometimes it’s as easy to spot on a label as “Palm Kernel Oil or Palm Fruit Oil,” but many other times it’ll show up as one of these sneaky ingredients, including Vegetable Oil, Sodium Laurel Sulfate, Stearic Acid, and lots of others with “palm” somewhere in the name like Palmitic Acid, Palmitate, or Palmolein.
Why is it bad?
The gist of why palm oil is problematic lies in where it grows and what it has to replace in order to be grown and harvested. The African oil palms that palm oil comes from grow in tropical areas, rainforests to be specific. Rainforests are some of the most biodiverse ecosystems on the planet, hosting 50% of the Earth’s plant and animal species. They also absorb a significant amount of our carbon dioxide and produce a huge portion of the oxygen we need to survive. A dead tree, conversely, releases carbon dioxide into the environment, and, in case you missed it, we don’t really need any more carbon in the atmosphere at the moment.
In order to produce as much palm oil as we’ve been using, farmers in Southeast Asia, Latin America, and Africa burn and clear cut huge tracts of the rainforest, replacing all that beautiful biodiversity, displacing indigenous communities, and destroying the homes of countless endangered animal species like the orangutan, Borneo elephant, and Sumatran tiger, leading them closer and closer to extinction. Oil palm plantations across the globe currently cover 27 hectares of land, which is equivalent to the size of New Zealand. Palm oil production is bad for the communities and animals that depend on those rainforests, and it’s bad for us and the planet as a whole as we destroy the resources on which we depend.
What can you do about it?
There’s a little bit of a divide amongst activists and industry experts regarding what the ideal solutions to this problem are. Namely, the question of whether to protest and avoid palm oil altogether and/or to support the sustainable palm oil movement by purchasing products with RSPO-certified palm oil.
OPTION 1: Avoid it.
Boycotting is a classic activist strategy that sends a message loud and clear to the corporations perpetuating the problem you’d like to solve that they won’t get your money if they continue their poor practices. It hits them where it hurts the most and has proven successful many times in history. Generally, this can be a productive tactic.
While it may feel difficult to completely avoid since palm oil-based ingredients are so ubiquitous, there are several ways to support the anti-palm oil movement, including some of the same low waste habits you may already be adopting:
- Make food from scratch using raw ingredients. Relying less on pre-packaged foods is a great way to avoid palm oil, reduce waste from packaging, and ensure the food you’re eating is healthy and wholesome.
- DIY your own personal care and cleaning products.
- Purchase palm-oil free products.
- Write letters to brands that use palm oil-based ingredients as well as retailers who carry them sharing your concerns and letting them know that you intend to avoid using their products until they change their practices. (This worked really well when getting Target to stop carrying items with BPA!)
- Write to your local representatives to support legislation that limits palm oil usage.
OPTION 2: Support the sustainable palm oil movement.
Something to consider with regards to boycotting is the reason palm oil is so popular in the first place. It’s extremely versatile and actually requires up to 10x less land than other vegetable oil alternatives like sunflower, grapeseed, and soy. At the rate consumers have been using palm oil-based products, companies who rely on this product may choose to replace palm oil with another less controversial but also potentially less sustainable crop.
This is why some advocates favor the sustainable palm oil movement.
Palm oil producers can become RSPO-certified by proving that they provide fair working conditions to their laborers and do not interfere with or displace local communities, clear any primary forest, or harm wildlife. They are also required to minimize greenhouse gas emissions and other industrial pollutants. This allows concerned parties as well as industry stakeholders to regulate the industry to an extent that doesn’t necessarily happen across other commodity industries.
“My opinion is that the best thing we can do is put a lot of pressure on the palm industry to get certified. If we rattle the anti-palm cage and push for RSPO certification and demand compliance, we all win. If we all run, who's going to push it? What's the effect of that on other industries and the supply chain if we all look away?” - Stuart Bailey, Camamu Soap
Those who want to support this movement can look for products with RSPO-certified palm oil listed as an ingredient. You can view a list of all members here.
OPTION 3: Both
Of course, a third option is to do a little of both. You can choose to buy mostly simple, wholesome raw ingredients and also purchase some products here and there that use sustainable palm oil, especially for those items like soap and shampoo that are a little harder to avoid altogether.
We considered this topic a lot when deciding which products to offer in our store. Our goal was to be completely transparent and give our customers the ultimate choice based on their preferences, which is why for some products, like soap and shampoo, we decided to carry both palm oil-free and RSPO-certified options.
Some ingredients like palm-oil based BTMS (Behentrimonium Methosulfate) were also really hard to avoid in conditioners and moisturizing shampoos, but it's the ingredient responsible for giving your hair slip, which makes it pretty clutch at detangling.
Let us know what you think about this issue. Are you anti-palm oil altogether, pro-sustainable palm oil, or a little of both? We'd love to hear your thoughts and suggestions, and you're always welcome to hit us up with any questions about us or our products!