The Unfortunate Truth About Palm Oil
Palm oil takes many forms in personal care and household products hidden by mysterious names like cetearyl alcohol, decyl glucoside, sodium lauryl sulfate, and lauryl glucoside. It’s hard to shop without buying into palm oil, because these ingredients have desirable properties like thickening, mixing, and most notably, lathering. Advertising success has nurtured this myth that an effective product must be sudsy, which actually isn’t true. The deal is sweetened for companies since oil palms are an efficient crop that offer the greatest yield for the lowest cost of all vegetable oils.
Something we are proud of is that none of our products contain palm oil. This is a choice we’ve made due to the destructive nature of its production. So far, 27 million hectares of land have been deforested in almost every country near the equator. It is estimated that 300 football field sized areas of forest are cleared every hour to make way for palm farms. This includes Africa, Thailand, China, the Philippines, Central and South America. Damage is most severe in the rainforests of Malaysia and Indonesia. These lush tropics have the most species-rich populations in the world yet are leveled to make way for monoculture farms.
Monoculture farming is when one crop is cultivated tirelessly on the same land. If you’re imagining scenes out of The Lorax you’re on the right track. A practice meant to be efficient, monoculture farming drains nutrients from the soil. This lack of variety in crops leads to an imbalance in the ecosystem causing more disease and pests. In true industrialist fashion, companies attempt to reverse these consequences with pesticides and synthetic chemicals.
Perhaps most heartbreaking is the effect on the inhabitants of these lands. Animals and humans alike do not have strong legal protection. Indigenous peoples are forced to abandon sacred, ancestral lands; surrendering their culture and wellbeing to bulldozers. Endangered species such as the Orangutan, Sumatran elephant, Bornean pygmy elephant, Sumatran rhino, and Sumatran tiger are pushed further to extinction. Animals cannot survive without the food and shelter of their habitat. Since there is little wild habitat left, animals can get lost and end up on these plantations, risking death by accident.
Local people and animals are not the only ones suffering. Globally, we face the consequence of climate change. To clear space for palm farms, native plants and peat swamp forests are burned. Peat is decomposed plant matter that takes thousands of years to grow in Southeast Asia and Indonesia. This unique habitat is incredibly important globally because it absorbs carbon. One hectare of peat forest collects 2,009 metric tons of CO2 emissions. That is equivalent to 1,551 cars driving around the US for an entire year.
When peat is set ablaze, this carbon sink is lost and greenhouse gases are set free with the billowing smoke. People living in surrounding areas seek hospitalization for skin, eye, and lung issues as a result of this pollution. Wastewater, rich in methane, seeps into the environment from palm oil refineries. Methane is a greenhouse gas that is 34 times stronger than carbon dioxide.
The tricky part of this debate is that palm oil alternatives have their own caveats. If everyone were to eliminate palm oil from their lives, these destructive businesses will move on to another option that requires more land to yield the same amount of oil. So what is the solution?
Some companies advertise that they use RSPO Certified Sustainable Palm oil. RSPO stands for the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil. It’s a certification scheme created largely by the very business people doing the clearcutting, and very few environmental experts. The objective of certification was good in theory; protect orangutans and elevate the quality of life for people whose land they have grabbed. However, a study from the University of Queensland has tested these sustainability metrics only to come up fruitless. The goals are vague and have no quantifying information, which makes accountability very flexible. Until there is concrete evidence from sources that don’t benefit from palm oil’s success, we continue our ban.