Palm oil – controversial, but possibly sustainable?

Palm oil has become the most widely consumed vegetable oil on the planet, being used in virtually every consumable product thanks to its versatile properties, low cost and durability. It’s used as an energy source in biofuel, it’s found in our food and cleaning products, and (yes, you guessed it) it’s also a popular ingredient for personal care formulations.

Contrary to what many may think, the personal care industry uses a very small portion of the global supply of palm oil. In fact, 60 percent of palm oil consumption is related to supposedly eco-friendly biofuel, and the second largest percentage is related to food items.

Palm oil is one of the few highly saturated vegetable oils, which makes it semi-solid at room temperature. It contains high levels of palmitic acid, which contributes to the hardness and stable creamy lather of soap. It also contains high levels of oleic fatty acids, which are often used in soap conditioning and moisturising.

There’s no denying it’s a very handy product, but palm oil is also the most controversial vegetable oil on the planet. Its rapid expansion has claimed more than 27 million hectares of palm plantations, which threatens our planet with deforestation, loss of biodiversity and displacement of indigenous peoples.

So, why are we still using it? Put simply: palm oil is the most sustainable vegetable oil. This may sound contradictory but let us explain.

With palm oil completely out of the picture, global demand for oil can only be satisfied with alternative vegetable oils. This is a major issue because, compared to other common vegetable oils like soybean, palm oil crops yield four to ten times more oil per unit of land, and require fewer pesticides and fertiliser. Palm oil accounts for 35 percent of all vegetable oils, grown on just 10 percent of the land allocated to oil crops. It truly is a great plant, but unfortunately, it’s been administrated wrongly for many years by multinational corporations seeking massive profits.

So, what can we do? We can do something – we can choose wisely.

Palm oil is produced from native African palm trees, and yet 90 percent of the world’s supply of palm oil comes from Indonesia and Malaysia, where vast green forests the size of New Zealand are reduced to deserts. This is the result of poor management practices and thoughtless exploitation of the land, which has to stop. Boycotting the entire palm oil industry (including sustainably-sourced palm oil), however, is not the way to go. Boycotting will only make things worse as the demand for oil will shift to other crops that use double the land for the same amount of oil.

The good news? There are a number of organisations in the palm oil industry promoting ethical and responsible management practices that provide economic and social benefits to developing African countries without threatening ecosystems. World Wildlife Fund (WWF) works closely with organisations such as Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) and Palm Oil Innovation Group (POIG) to support palm oil produced from seeds grown by a collective of stakeholders in East Africa.

As organisations that value resources, it’s our job to understand where the oil we’re using comes from. This is our challenge to you: make a commitment to choose your suppliers, manufacturers and ingredients ethically, and only source palm oil from suppliers whose supply chain is certified as being sustainable.

By choosing RSPO suppliers (and demanding to see certifications if necessary), together we can play a major role in helping to minimise the negative impact of palm oil cultivation on the environment and the communities in palm oil-producing regions. Beautiful Solutions is on board – are you?

Learn more about our values here, or give us a call on (+64) 07 975 1521.

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