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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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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