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The Thing About Palm

When doing research back in 2013 on what kind of non-animal ingredients are both the best AND most cost-effective in soapmaking, palm oil came up every time. You may not know this (or you may know about it very well), but palm oil as an ingredient is a hotly contested topic in the soaping industry. Many are against its use due to reports of deforestation and outright murder of the animals reliant upon those forests. Other issues include: lack of consultation with the communities reliant on those forests for their livelihood, violation of workers’ rights, and some have even been displaced in the development of palm oil production plants.

I had initially been attempting to make a vegan-friendly soap, so I was horrified to find out the dreadful social and environmental impacts of palm oil production.

Then I found out about the RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) certification program, which was created in 2008 to address these exact concerns. It is a very in-depth certification program that takes into account both the environmental and social aspects of palm oil production, and was designed to prevent forests and the biodiversity in those forest from being destroyed.

There is some ambiguity surrounding the sustainable palm oil business, an idea that some producers are saying they use sustainable means of production, but in reality, they do not. It’s a contention that a company can slap a “sustainably sourced” label on their products and there is no certification processes, third-party watchdogs, or regulations in place to ensure they are telling the truth. In many cases that may be so, although much of the information I’ve found regarding this issue was 15-20 years old.

We could all just stop using products made with palm oil, but no matter what, we are going to be facing the same problems with any other plant oil that is produced on the same scale as palm oil. This is why sustainability (rather than outright trying to kill an entire industry) is preferable:

  • Replacing palm oil with other types of vegetable oil (such as sunflower, soybean or rapeseed oil) would mean that much larger amounts of land would need to be used, since palm trees produce 4-10 times more oil than other crops per unit of cultivated land. This would result in serious environmental damage, with the risk that more forests would need to be converted into agricultural land.

  • In producing countries, millions of farmers and their families work in the palm oil sector. Palm oil plays an important role in the reduction of poverty in these areas. In Indonesia and Malaysia, a total of 4.5 million people earn their living from palm oil production. Stopping the production of palm oil altogether would create significant problems for these people who support their families by working in this industry.

  • Replacing palm oil with other types of oil is not always feasible due to palm oil’s unique properties as a food and cosmetic ingredient. Using other oils would not give the products the same texture, taste, and feel that palm oil offers.

Any producer who is certified through the program is continually audited and checked by third parties to ensure they are complying with all the facets of the program. Each part of the production process is audited, from the people who plant and grow and pick, to the manufacturers who produce the oil. If anyone is found to be not in compliance with their standards, the certification is revoked and they will have to go through the process all over to regain their certification. Some information about the program from the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil:

One of the most important RSPO criteria states no primary forests or areas which contain significant concentrations of biodiversity (e.g. endangered species) or fragile ecosystems, or areas which are fundamental to meeting basic or traditional cultural needs of local communities (high conservation value areas), can be cleared.
"Other RSPO principles stipulate a significantly reduced use of pesticides and fires; fair treatment of workers according to local and international labour rights standards, and the need to inform and consult with local communities before the development of new plantations on their land."

You can learn more about RSPO's Principles and Criteria here.

“Only by being RSPO-certified by an independent auditor approved by the RSPO can producers claim that they produce, use and/or sell sustainable palm oil.”

There are some that are very adamant about ensuring you never purchase a product made with palm oil. The funny thing is, a majority of our products, from toothpaste to ice cream and even vehicle fuel, are made with unsustainable palm oil, so even the most staunch opponents of it likely still consume it in some ways. Planet-wise, we use it on such a large scale that would be nearly impossible to completely eradicate its use. However, we can certainly do our part by purchasing products made with sustainable sources.

To be honest, I don’t believe in telling people what they should or shouldn’t buy. What I do believe in is proper education and allowing the customer to make their own decisions based on what they know. And now you know: Sugar Bee Bath only uses Certified Sustainable Palm Oil.

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