A Word on Palm Oil and Why Our Sources Matter

Palm Oil and Responsibility – The Rain Forest Alliance

Here at Soap Alchemy, we are very conscious of how our ingredients will affect both your skin and our planet.  Some materials, such as the Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil present in many of our products, are relatively easy to procure from environmentally-friendly sources.  Others, though equally important, are a bit more contentious and require additional consideration.  Among the latter group are Palm Oil and Palm Kernel Oil.

Though both are produced from oil palm trees (namely Elaeis guineensis,  Elaeis oleifera, and Attalea maripa), Palm Oil is made specifically from the fleshy part of the tree’s fruit, while Palm Kernel Oil is made from the kernel (or seed) within the fruit.  Along with the increasingly-popular Coconut Oil, they are among the few highly-saturated vegetable fats.  As such, Palm Oil and Palm Kernel Oil are solid at room temperature, which is a unique property for plant-based oils.  This has made them important for use in both cooking and personal care products.

The problem we are faced with is that Palm Oil production practices have, in many cases, led to the clear-cutting of primary forests (where biodiversity and protected species must be maintained) and the mistreatment of indigenous people who may not have been consulted over the use of their land.  While the knee-jerk reaction may be to simply avoid products that contain any type of Palm Oil, it is not so simple.

Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil

According to the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), “palm trees produce 4-10 times more oil than other crops per unit of cultivated land.”  Conservation International concurs, stating “palm oil represents about 38% of the world’s supply of edible oil, but it’s grown on only 5% of the land dedicated to oilseed crops globally.”  Therefore, replacing Palm Oil with other plant-based oils would actually require more land (and therefore, more deforestation).  The RSPO also points out that, from a humanitarian perspective, oil palm cultivation is a large part of the economy in poverty-stricken areas of the world, which have become dependent on it for their sustenance.  Additionally, Palm Oil is a unique product and replacement materials may not be satisfactory.

Fortunately, there is a solution: sustainable palm oil production.  According to the RSPO website:

In 2008, the RSPO developed a set of environmental and social criteria which companies must comply with in order to produce Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO). When they are properly applied, these criteria can help to minimize negative impacts.

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.

Palm Oil Innovation Group

A second Organization, the Palm Oil Innovation Group (POIG) was founded in 2013 and is building on the progress RSPO has made.  POIG’s vision (according to their official website) is to create:

 A responsible supply chain that has broken the link between palm oil production and the destruction of forests and peatlands, the exploitation of communities and workers, and climate change.

Toward this end, they are focusing on “environmental responsibility, partnerships with communities, and corporate and product integrity” by supporting and expanding on the work that RSPO has already done.  Some have argued that RSPO standards are not stringent enough and that they don’t have enough authority to make the changes they seek.  POIG is trying to amend this by creating recognition and market space for RSPO’s front-runners, simplifying their guidelines and verification process, and working toward more transparency in the supply chain.  Doing so will help corporations and their customers make better choices, which will leverage market forces and make up for their lack of political and legal authority.

Another important facet of their plan is to create and promote innovation within the palm oil industry.  Helping farmers attain these higher standards will require ingenuity and a good communication network for sharing new innovations with the small farms that make up most of the palm oil industry.  By making it easier for farmers to improve their methods and rewarding them for doing so with greater demand for their crops, POIG hopes to make the public, corporations, and the farmers partners in rainforest preservation rather than adversaries.

Though POIG oils have not yet made it all the way through the distribution channels (remember, they were only funded in 2013), we at Soap Alchemy are doing our part by keeping pressure on our suppliers and ensuring that they will make them available to us as soon as possible.

Rainforest Alliance

A third important group that audits palm oil plantations for sustainability is the Rainforest Alliance (whose “frog” certification seal you are probably familiar with).  Established in 1987 to help regulate the banana industry, the Rainforest Alliance has a much wider scope than the RSPO and the POIG, which work exclusively on palm oil sustainability.  As you may already know, the Rainforest Alliance, works with farms, forests, and businesses associated with coffee, bananas, coconuts, tea, and other tropical crops in addition to palm oil.  You see, palm oil is not the only agricultural product that threatens the rainforests, nor is it the worst (that dubious honor, arguably, goes to cattle ranches).  Though palm oil has gotten a lot of bad press in recent years, that may be because it’s easier to demonize something that is typically seen only on ingredient lists than it is to attack a person’s precious morning coffee or their beloved coconut oil.  That is not to say that the palm oil industry is innocent… just that others are every bit as (if not more) guilty of clear cutting forests and other practices that are hazardous to the environment.

Rainforest Alliance’s early work lead to the establishment of the Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN) in 1998.  The SAN is a coalition of conservation groups that manages Rainforest Alliance farm certification system and sets the worldwide standard for sustainable agricultural certification.  In order to be certified, farms must meet all critical criteria, work toward improving non-critical criteria, and undergo regular audits (both scheduled and surprise) to prove that they continue to be compliant.  According to the Rainforest Alliance:

The SAN standard is comprehensive, covering environmental protection, social responsibility, and economic viability. To earn Rainforest Alliance certification, farms must meet criteria in all three areas. This means farmers work to:

  • Maintain or increase tree cover
  • Prevent erosion and nurture the quality of their soil
  • Eliminate the use of critically dangerous agrochemicals, reduce the use of other chemicals, and safeguard local water supplies
  • Monitor and protect the animals that live on or pass through their properties
  • Facilitate access for workers to clean water, housing, and healthcare, and education for their children
  • Prevent children under age 15 from working, except for the purpose of maintaining local culture and family tradition, and help ensure safe working conditions for all employees
  • Operate their farms efficiently and profitably and pay their workers at least the legal minimum wage

These stringent requirements help the farmers and their communities as well as the global environment we all share.  We encourage you to browse the Rainforest Alliance website for more information about their work and stories about how they have improved the lives of those they work with.

With the help of these organizations, companies now have access to raw ingredients that have been produced with greater environmental and economic responsibility and their customers can hold them accountable for their decisions.  Because we are dedicated to ensuring that all of our products (and, therefore, the ingredients we use) are sustainable, environmentally-friendly, and humanitarian, Soap Alchemy exclusively uses Palm Oil and Palm Kernel oil that has been certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil and the Rainforest Alliance.  Because only about 21% of the world’s Palm Oil is RSPO-certified, this greatly limits our options.  However, it is this very attention to detail that makes Soap Alchemy’s products so effective and delightful.  We want you to feel as good about using our goods as we do about creating them, and we sincerely hope that providing this information has brought us nearer to this goal.   

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