Oil Palm Concession in Riau, Sumatra

Oil Palm Concession in Riau, Sumatra by Hayden \ CC-BY-2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

A plant-based cosmetics and skin care industry can encourage the protection of species and forests all over the globe, but only if it’s developed responsibly utilizing a variety of species globally and practicing ethical agricultural practices. There is a dark side to using plants at a commercial scale and the most obvious industry that demonstrates this is palm oil.

RELATED: Biodiversity and the Beauty Industry

The ‘palm industry’ refers to the African oil palm (Elaeis guineensis), a tree indigenous to West Africa that has been naturalized in countries all over the world, including Madagascar, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Indonesia and Central America. It produces a palm fruit that yields a very high amount of fat and is currently the cheapest source of edible oil in the world. Because of this economic advantage, it is in everything. I even caught myself eating it while researching this article in a bag of chocolate covered pretzels. The main use of palm oil is for food (71 per cent) but it is also used extensively in the consumer product industry (25 per cent) where it goes into cosmetics, skin care, shampoos, soaps and detergents. The other 4 per cent produced is used as biofuel.

Palm oil has been used as food in Africa for at least 3,000 years. Europe developed a demand for it in the 1700s when it was used for candles, soaps and machine lubricant. In 1911, William Lever, who went on to form Unilever (Dove, Lux), received a concession of 750,000 hectares of land in the Belgian Congo to produce palm for soap and eventually margarine and other food products. The indigenous people of the region were forced to work at European plantations under horrendous conditions. The industry expanded to Malaysia and Indonesia and grew to 250,000 tonnes by 1930.

It has been estimated that 98 per cent of Indonesia’s forests will be destroyed by 2022.

Our current demand for palm is insatiable, with growth rates estimated to double between 2000 and 2030, and triple by 2050. This growth is responsible for the continuous destruction of tropical forests at a rate so rapid that it has been estimated that 98 per cent of Indonesia’s forests will be destroyed by 2022. Palm plantations are replacing rare biodiverse ecosystems home to many endangered species with millions of hectares of just one plant. Tropical deforestation is responsible for 10 per cent of all anthropogenic CO2 emissions.

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In 2004, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil was formed with founding members Aarhus United UK Ltd, Migros, Malaysian Palm Oil Association, Unilever and the World Wildlife Fund. It does not prevent growth of the industry, but rather encourages farming in areas where it will be less destructive. Since there is no such thing as truly sustainable growth in the palm industry, we have to prevent growth, and the only way to do this is to decrease demand for palm oil by choosing not to purchase products that contain it.

Keep an eye out for the following ingredients on labels:

Food: Vegetable oil, vegetable shortening and any ingredients with the word ‘palm’ in it.

Cosmetics and skin care: Sodium palmitate (in soaps), Elaeis guineensis, retinyl palmitate, ascorbyl palmitate, palmitic acid, stearic acid.

Palm oil and its derivatives are found in most detergents, including hand soaps, shampoos, conditioners, facial cleansers, body washes, and bubble bath. Look for labelling that states otherwise.

Home and industrial products: Dish detergent (they don’t call it Palmolive for nothing), laundry detergent and other household cleaners.

Jessica Burman is the founder and owner of organic skin care line Cocoon Apothecary. She likes getting down to the bottom of things and exposing toxins lurking in every day products, and blogs for A\J about how everyday consumer choices can effect your health and the state of the planet. She is passionate about ditching synthetic chemicals in favor of simple, time-tested alternatives. She lives in Kitchener and is a mom to two youngs girls and too many pets. 

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