Palm-free soap? How avoiding Palm Oil in soap making could INCREASE deforestation

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A palm oil boycott might seem a good thing but it could spell environmental disaster. Here’s how avoiding palm oil in soap making could cause deforestation

Palm-free soap? A palm oil boycott might seem a good thing but it could spell environmental disaster. Here's how avoiding palm oil in soap making could cause deforestation #lovelygreens #soapmaking #soap #palmoil

Even if you’re across the pond you’ll have been hearing and seeing a lot about palm oil this week. My Facebook feed is full of it and the shock that’s been caused by a recently banned TV advert. Because you’re interested in soap making I feel that we need to talk about the issue. Palm oil is HUGE in soap making and the vast majority of recipes call for it. Many soap makers, including myself, have chosen to boycott palm oil in our products because of the environmental damage it’s doing.

Today I learned of an argument that avoiding palm oil in soap making could make things worse. Before your blood boils over, hang in there while I explain.

We eat palm oil everyday

Most people in the west eat palm oil daily without even knowing it. It’s used in virtually every type of processed food that you can think of. Not just ready meals either, but things like cookies, crackers, spreads, Crisco, and gravy granules.  It’s also used in beauty products including soap.

A bar of handmade soap popped out of the mould
Palm oil creates hard bars with good lather

Palm oil is one of the most widely used oils because it’s cheap to grow and is amazingly versatile. It also only grows in tropical regions which is why rain forests are leveled in order to grow it. Palm oil plantations now take up 27 million hectares of land an area the size of New Zealand.

That is an astonishing amount of palm oil being produced and all of it is very much in demand. If we turn our backs on palm oil then it will need to be replaced by another oil. The implications of that is something that I’d not thought through before.

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A birds eye view of a destroyed rain forest in Borneo
Palm oil plantations are causing massive deforestation in places like Borneo. Image credit

Many soap making recipes call for palm oil

Many soap making recipes call for palm oil, even some of the older ones here on Lovely Greens (here are my palm-oil-FREE soap recipes). It creates good firm bars with decent lather and along with olive oil and coconut oil make excellent bars. It’s also really cheap to buy and easy to find.

Most soap to this day has palm oil as an ingredient, usually labeled as Sodium palmate. However, a lot of soap makers are aware of its controversy and have switched to sustainable oil or have stopped using it completely.

Sustainable palm oil is from plantations that voluntarily adhere to the standards set by the RSPO, otherwise known as the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil. They include agreeing not to cut down virgin forests or to use slash and burn tactics.

In the past I used sustainable palm in my own products but eventually stopped. After reading various articles I questioned how effective the RSPO is in ensuring that their members are complying with standards. Boycotting palm oil in soap making seemed to be the best option.

Oils melting in a steel pan
Palm oil is often mixed with other oils to create inexpensive yet good bars of soap

Is avoiding palm oil the solution?

The problem is that if we avoid its use other inexpensive oils will be sought out. Palm oil plantations produce four to ten times more oil per unit of land compared to any other type of oil. That means a switch to oils like soybean could dramatically increase deforestation. Here’s what the picture looks like right now.

Losing our rain forests is bad news. Not only does it displace indigenous people and wildlife but without rain forests our future is bleak. They’re the lungs of the planet, creating 40% of the oxygen we need. They’re also important in absorbing CO2 and in harboring plants important for human medicine.

On the other hand, the demand for other oils — sunflower, corn, canola, rapeseed — will mean that much more land will be needed to grow it in temperate countries. That will put pressure on ecosystems and fresh water resources closer to home.

a diagram of riperian zones showing the benefit that forests have in keeping waterways clear of pollutants and sediments
The RSPO supports the creation of Riperian Zones, forested areas along waterways

Supporting RSPO certified ‘Sustainable Palm Oil’

Currently, only 19% of palm oil on the market is certified by the RSPO as ‘Sustainable’. That figure is low because RSPO membership and certification is voluntary and most producers haven’t committed to it. This is some of the criteria the RSPO demand of their members:

  • Growers and millers commit to ethical conduct in all business operations and transactions
  • New plantings since November 2005 have not replaced primary forest or any area required to maintain or enhance one or more High Conservation Values
  • Practices maintain the quality and availability of surface and ground water
  • Minimise and control erosion and degradation of soils
  • Practices maintain soil fertility at, or where possible improve soil fertility to, a level that ensures optimal and sustained yield

The RSPO are also committed to both people and wildlife. Their standards mean that forest is left along water ways and can serve as wildlife corridors to wild areas on plantations. These Riperian Zones also help reduce soil erosion and water pollution. The RSPO also are supportive of people. Their members have to prove that indigenous communities aren’t displaced, laws aren’t being broken, and that workers are paid a fair wage.

Light coloured natural bars of soap on a fabric back drop
It’s up to individual soap makers on whether or not to use palm oil in soap making

Palm oil in Soap Making

It’s clear that if we demand sustainable palm oil in our food and products, manufacturers will too. That will mean that more growers will join the RSPO. With more members, the organization would expand and have much more influence. It will eventually mean that having their certification will become a necessity rather than an option. That means more protection for the world’s natural places and less strain on land, water, and other resources.

Bringing this back to soap making, the argument could be that all of us should be supporting sustainable palm oil. Even proactively supporting its use. Joining the palm oil boycott will not make the problem go away. It will just create new ones.

What this means is down to the individual soap maker. Some of us will no doubt continue to make soap without palm oil. Others might switch to using sustainable palm. Others might actually decide that all their soap should have sustainable palm oil in order to support the RSPO.

Some soap makers will continue using conventional palm oil, either out of ignorance, cost, or lack of understanding. While there are a lot of questions still, there’s one thing that’s certain. Whether we’re making soap as a hobby or as a business someone is eventually going to ask the question. Do you use palm oil in soap making? How we answer and educate is up to us.

Have an opinion about this piece? Please leave a comment down below.

Image credit for featured image: Recent deforestation on peat land for palm oil plantation. Central Kalimantan, Borneo, Indonesia. From Glen Hurowitz on Flickr

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  1. amber johnson says:

    In the past year I started making soap, at first I had no idea why palm oil was so controversial. but it didn’t take long to find out. i love animals and try to be eco friendly in everything I do. I hadnt thought about the impact boy-coting palm oil would have or the fact that whatever oil we replace it with would have just as drastic of an affect. Thank you for this article. I hope everyone is open minded and supports sustainably sourced palm oil

  2. Hello
    My views are similar to those of Adam, Amanda and JJ. and I haven’t knowingly used Palm Oil for years. I am very familiar with South East Asia and met my Filipino wife there, 31 years ago. The Palm Oil industry is centred on Malaysia and Indonesia and companies from these two countries have control. The RSPO, in my view, is simply a PR attempt to protect their considerable income and the fact that their Head Offices are in KL Malaysia and Jakarta Indonesia supports this. The token HQ is in Zurich, Switzerland.

    It is simply not possible to sustainably obtain Palm Oil from plantations. The sustainable producers are normally family owned part-time small forest gatherers who collect from trees throught their local areas and supplement their income from small scale farming and animal husbandry. (A “scratch and feed” life as described by my wife.) I understand that there are approximately five million small scale sustainable oil producers around the world but the total membership of all members, regardless of size, of RSPO, is only about five thousand. It would seem to be not very representitive.
    I see, too, from the internet, that over the years, Amnesty International has reported on their activities.
    Many thanks for your interesting article and all the views expressed. Actually, I only dropped in to check on honey straining.

    1. I’m glad you stayed around to read this piece too! Thanks for your views Ian, and for contributing to the discussion on this topic.

  3. Richard Cole says:

    A very thought-provoking article and I’m still undecided which way to go. I’m looking to start making handmade soap and initially looked at making palm-free soap but still not decided but will do some more research.

  4. I’m a soap maker live in borneo, palm oil is the cheapest oil i can use. Coconut is 2x the price, canola 5x times and olive oil 15x more for a liter. I won’t comment on shea butter and everything else since it’s so expensive and requires extra shipping cost and footprints. We don’t have sustainable palm oil since most people are not aware of the issue. We only have two brands of coconut oil made in the country and it’s just recently. What should i use to make my soap to replace palm while keeping it vegan to convert people into using handmade soap and which also means i need to keep it friendly on the budget? istg i got a headache trying to find the best solution. I’m not ignorant.

    1. You’re in a really tough situation Wendy! I’ve heard from other soapmakers in Asia who have the same dilemma. If I were you, I’d examine my customer base and understand if they are able to afford soap that costs a bit more. Work through the costs and try to find a way to reconcile your values with your products.

  5. If you’ve been to SE Asia, you probably know how blatantly corrupt the govs can be here. This, plus the fact that the RSPO is industry-led, makes it very difficult to believe this association’s guidelines are properly enforced or their members accurately audited.
    I’ve been palm oil free for ~3 years so far, and it’s a pain in the ass. Would love to know there’s a ‘sustainable palm oil’ or that palm oil is the lesser of evils. But everything I’ve read so far seems like spin.

  6. I’ve been looking online for a comparison of land requirements for growing the castor bean vs palm but I can’t seem to find anything reliable to compare the two. Can you link to where you found your information about Palm oil needing less land than all other oils? Re: your statement, “Palm oil plantations produce four to ten times more oil per unit of land compared to any other type of oil.”

    Thank you.

  7. Out of curiosity–have you ever been to Borneo? Have you ever traveled the island by land and seen the utterly innumerable amount of palm trees neatly in rows in an unending stretch for miles? Have you ever seen a wild orangutan forced to live right at the river’s edge along the Kinabatangan in Sabah because the ever-increasing plantations surrounding her has made it so there is no other place to go? As Wong Siew Te, the founder of the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre stated when asked about the loss of Sun Bear habitat due to palm plantations, “We are all complicit”. He is entirely correct and as consumers, our purchasing dictates the trajectory of this industry and of the remaining rainforest in Borneo. While I understand your perspective of “well the oil has to come from somewhere” , it is vital for us to understand how palm oil is used in every day products, the effect that it has on that product, and consider what value that effect has on your experience of that product. Take peanut butter as an example. Palm oil is added as a stabilizer to many brands to prevent the oil from settling at the top. Is it that detractive to mix your peanut butter before enjoying it? While I will never argue against the sustainable sourcing of any raw material, palm oil serves as a non-essential ingredient in many products and believing that the demand for an oil to serve these functions will remain equivalent and will simply shift the burden to a different ecosystem doesn’t address the possibility that an educated consumer population could shift their buying power to products where it either a) contains an oil that has a more established infrastructure for sustainable production or b) doesn’t contain any unnecessary oils. This is of course not possible for all uses of palm oil, however, simply finding an alternative for a few commonly purchased products to be without palm oil can have an impact. Thank you stimulating discussion by posting this article.

  8. Colleen Harrison says:

    Brilliant article – thank you

  9. Wendy Gardner says:

    One of the probably controversial ways to avoid palm in soapmaking is to use traditional ingredients that our ancestors used like lard, tallow, duck or goose fat etc. No airmiles or shipping if you use what grows in your area. Vs shipping in Shea from tropical Africa.

  10. Jacqueline says:

    I would like to rebatch used soap. How can I purify it before rebatching the soap?

  11. Hi Tanya, Thank you for this article, I absolutely agree with you! I never thought about this…

  12. I’m skeptical. The only source you cited that cutting palm oil may possibly increase deforestation is written by a bank with financial investment in the palm industry. Likewise all other primary sources I’ve seen online taking this position are written by people who have financially ties to ‘sustainable’ palm production. I need to see more data from reputable independent environmental groups before trusting that assessment.

    I can see how increasing demand for another type of oil could be more environmentally harmful but until there’s actual data/models it’s just speculation. Likewise the assumptions used to generate the estimation needs to make sense and I’m not sure how soybean production will increase rainforest loss, for example. Palm grows well in tropical climates, soybean does not.

    1. It’s definitely not speculation. If we all stop using palm altogether (which produces far more oil per area of land than any other) then it would have a devastating effect on the environment. The demand for oil will still be there but it will need to come from other sources. It’s kind of a no-brainer.

      1. I also disagree. As you mentioned the main problem right now is deforestation. Maybe less sunflower oil and canola oil can be produced / same amount of land but they can be produced in different climate and region which would lessen the pressure which is currently on rainforests.
        I live in Hungary , we have a huge fields of sunflower and Rapeseed. Those fields are obtained without destroying any forests.

      2. Holly Degan says:

        Hi Tanya, thanks for this article and speaking about this controversial topic. This is the same conclusion that I have come to as well from reading absolutely everything I can get my hands on about this topic because I’m a passionate soapmaker but first I am passionate about our precious earth & it’s equally precious inhabitants. Palm produces more valuable oil per square feet of land than any other oil plant that we may replace it with. It’s simple math. Of course, I’m will only support certified rspo since I’m able to and I’d encourage anyone with a heart to do the same.????

        1. Great to hear from you Holly, and to hear that you’re on the same page :) I too am very much an environmentalist but this is such a complicated topic!

  13. Rosella Cervi says:

    I am a mum.
    You can imagine what future means to me.
    Thank you very much, Tanya.

  14. Tanya, thank you for you thought provoking piece and your painstaking research. I am new to soap making so I haven’t got into the habit of using palm oil without first thinking about the whole issue. I have, up to now, used only palm oil produced under the guidance of the RSPO, and, like you, have been considering avoiding palm oil completely. Palm oil is now, in so many ways, so entrenched in our everyday lives, I am thinking that it is now almost impossible to stop its use and production, and the best way to go is to do all we can to support the RSPO so that it may become more powerful and have a meaningful influence on habitat, wildlife, small family producers etc. I think if Iceland changed their policy to only selling products containing sustainable palm oil, the RSPO would get a much needed boost of publicity, and if other companies followed suit we could get to a situation where most palm oil production is sustainable and unless the producer stuck to the criteria laid down by an ever more powerful body such as the RSPO they wouldn’t easily be able to sell their product and we might be able to turn the juggernaut around just in time. Maybe. Also, thank you for your wonderful website !

  15. Anna Mitchell says:

    I’m very much against using palm oil as its production contributes to loss of habitat for countless animal species so whether I’m making my own soaps or buying them I always choose palm oil free options. Same with food, I always go for palm oil free even if that means making something from scratch rather than buying ready made, heavily processed stuff.

  16. The palm oil dilemma is relevant to responsibility that people have as custodians of the natural environment. Their needs to be more dialogue.

  17. Hi I say that everyone stick to the RSPO line as it will help bring all the plantations into line with it thus benefitting nature and humans alike. Plus it will continue to benefit the Indigenous people of the area with education in sustainable farming practices which will help improve their quality of life.

  18. The alternatives to Palm oil would certainly be a boon to farmers – especially at a time when many are being badly hurt by retribution by former markets by their markets in response to Trump’s tariffs.

    1. There’s just no way for the world to produce the amount of oil needed without creating more farm land. In other words, deforestation.

      1. I don’t use palm oil because clearing the land for new plantations involves slash and burning of old rainforest trees, and not only removes animal habitats, it releases massive amounts of hydrocarbons into the atmosphere and is a large factor in the global warming that is killing our planet. I have never used palm oil in my soap, so you couldn’t call that boycotting. But I avoid buying food products containing palm oil as much as I can. It’s not that hard; we cook at home from scratch most of the time and we don’t buy snack foods (most are laden with palm oil.)

        I don’t know what to do about Biofuels though. They’re the biggest reason for the out of control expansion of palm oil plantations. Our society really needs to address that problem.

        1. The issue is that if we use other types of oil instead of palm then even MORE land will need to be slashed and burned to produce it. 4 to 10 times more land to be exact.

      2. By cutting the meat intake per head of population, there would be enough farmland for increased alternative oil production.
        Realistically stopping using palm oil whilst meeting the oil demand is a multistep process, freeing up land currently in production for livestock and shifting it, over to alternative oil production, coupled with electric powered vehicles there would be less need for bio fuels.
        Great thoughts and angles on your sire BTW.

        1. Ian workman says:

          I couldn’t agree more with Geoff. Livestock contribute hugely to Climate Change so a reduction in meat consumption is needed – even if families change just one meal/week away from meat will make an unbelievable difference. With the result: more land available for alternative oil plants. Unsustainable palm oil plantations are insidious in just about every aspect. RSPO does it’s best I’m sure but it cannot guarantee its conditions are foolproof with the many, unscrupulous companies focused on income only. Best, I believe, to avoid if at all possible. I also consider your argument to be counter-productive persuading the undecided to accept the status-quo.

          1. Sarah Knoll says:

            Did you ever think by eating more meat, you are creating different oils, tallow, lard, etc.. I have seen plenty of good farm ground and grazing ground go into tree reserves, if we would not waste ground on that we wouldn’t need the rain forest so much!

  19. Paul Sargerson says:

    That is a really interesting article , I bet not many people will know what palm oil is used for myself included it is certainly an eye opener . It is only through people like yourself and education in it’s use that people will understand , hopefully in time it will sort itself out .

  20. Shirley Story says:

    Thank you for this article. I’ve changed from using ‘regular’ palm oil to sustainable palm oil while looking at palm free recipes. I really like the properties palm gives to my soap, so may have to keep using it now that you’ve armed me with the information about why I should continue using sustainable palm. Thank you so much.

  21. Stephanie says:

    Brilliant article, Tanya. This gives us all a lot to think about before jumping on the bandwagon. Thankfully those working to bring up the issues are inspiring great research like you have done here and it helps us see the bigger picture of how our consumption of products affects the planet. I’ll be on the lookout for RSPO certified palm oil

  22. Elaine Butler says:

    Interesting post and well done for writing it. I’ve come across the argument of less sustainable switches a few times, e.g. paper bags versus plastic ones, and i’m always surprised at peoples reluctance to consider avoiding the product completely. All the points you’ve raised about other sources of oil are true and worth considering but why aren’t we talking about changing our diets so that feed ourselves sustainably and I would suggest that if we can’t do that because of the sheer number of humans in total then we really need to consider whether we’d be better of engaging in some initiatives to discourage population growth.

  23. Having just placed my signature on the demand to reinstate icelands advert, I was horrified to read your article. I agree with your conclusions that sustainable production is the way to proceed. Next time I’m asked to sign a petition I will make the effort to see all sides of the situation. Thank you for alerting me to this .