One of the biggest fights being fought by environmental activists right now is against the use of palm oil in everything from skincare and lipstick to self-tanning products. “Palm oil is the most widely used vegetable oil on Earth. It’s an edible and highly versatile oil that comes from the fruit of oil palm trees," Emma Keller, agricultural commodities manager at WWF, tells Refinery29. "These trees grow best in the tropics and are highly productive, producing more oil per land area than any other vegetable oil! Together, Indonesia and Malaysia make up around 80% of the global palm oil supply.”
If you haven't come across palm oil before, you'll be surprised at how many everyday products contain it. “Palm oil is in nearly half of all packaged products we find in supermarkets; it’s in everything from pizza dough to cookies and ice cream, as well as being found in our shampoos, soaps and even lipstick; it’s everywhere," Keller explains. "We get three products from the oil palm tree: the main one is crude palm oil, which is a dark red liquid that is extracted from the flesh of the fruits; the second is palm kernel oil, which is the oil that is squeezed out of the kernel or the seed in the middle of the palm fruit; the last is palm kernel expeller, which is a by-product of the palm oil extraction process and is mainly used for animal feed as it is high in protein. These three products are often then refined and processed further to create palm oil derivatives that have different properties suitable for different products: everything from creating the shine on your croissant to providing stability to a soap bar.”
So if the tree can be extracted for so much, and the oil is so widely used, what's the problem? Well, according to the Zoological Society of London's Sustainable Palm Oil Transparency Tool Kit (SPOTT), the global demand for the tree – which grows over 20 metres tall, can be harvested all year round, and uses up to 10 times less land than other vegetable oils like rapeseed or sunflower – has a disastrous impact on our environment. As Keller mentioned, around 80% of palm oil is produced in Indonesia and Malaysia, thanks to their rainforest-rich land and tropical environments. But the reason these two countries are so habitable for palm oil farms is because they were previously home to some of the most biodiverse forests in the world. The deforestation caused by palm oil production is devastating not just for the wide range of ecosystems but for the Earth's climate, too. "These forests are home to over 10% of global biodiversity, including some iconic and vulnerable species like orangutans, tigers, rhinos and elephants," Keller warns. "In addition, the loss of these forests releases millions of tonnes of climate change-causing greenhouse gas emissions, and more recently has been linked to the burning of peat soils which has caused a dense ‘haze’ over parts of southeast Asia, which threatens people’s health."
On top of destroying rainforests and harming already-threatened species, palm oil farming has a wide-reaching social impact, too. According to SPOTT, indigenous lands cover around 40-70 million hectares in Indonesia, but only 1 million are legally recognised by the government. This means land that has been lived and worked on by indigenous people for generations is regularly handed over by the government to palm oil companies, often without the people knowing. If we care about the Dakota Access pipeline destroying the Native American tribes of Standing Rock, surely we should care about this, too. Alongside disregard for sacred land, there are issues of worker's rights, child labour, and the loss of culturally important sites, too.
So now we know this isn't an ingredient we'd be proud to have in our favourite lipstick or go-to skin saviour, how can we exercise our purchase power to make a difference? Is boycotting the answer? Keller argues that it isn't. "Palm oil is not the problem; it’s highly productive and provides a livelihood to millions of smallholder farmers. The issue comes in the way it is produced and thankfully, things are changing," she notes. "The global palm oil community have come together to define the best practices for producing palm oil that safeguard the environment and the people working in the industry. Every stage of the process, from farmers to processors, traders, manufacturers and retailers, as well as NGOs including WWF and Oxfam, have been involved in creating this best practice standard, called the RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil)."
What does the RSPO believe will happen if we boycott the ingredient? "Although using other vegetable oils seems like a practical solution, it would actually create similar, if not even larger environmental and social problems," a spokesperson tells Refinery29. This would include "larger amounts of land needing to be used, since palm oil trees produce 4-10 times more oil than other crops, as well as significant problems created for the 4.5 million people who earn their living from palm oil production across Indonesia and Malaysia." So if banning the ingredient isn't the answer, what is? "The best solution is to ensure you buy products that contain sustainable palm oil."
Back 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 properly applied, the criteria help to minimise typically negative impacts. Two of the RSPO's criteria? "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." That sounds like headway to us. "While not perfect yet," Keller says, "this standard is the best way to ensure that the palm oil in your product has been produced sustainably in a way that minimises impacts on people and planet.”
On a day-to-day basis, Keller advises several actions to contribute towards more sustainable palm oil production. Firstly, "buy from retailers and brands that only use sustainable palm oil". You can find out who is doing that here: Boots is currently leading the way, with 100% of its products containing palm oil CSPO-approved. Next up, "you can ask your favourite brands to do more on sustainable palm oil". Lush customers alerted the brand to its palm oil use, which led the brand to stop using the ingredient in soaps in 2008. However, a ban isn't helpful, so the best thing would be encouraging them to use sustainable methods instead. Finally, Keller urges you to "reduce your consumption footprint where possible" – if there's an alternative, buy it.
The journey to making your makeup bag and bathroom shelf sustainable, organic, vegan, cruelty- and problematic-free is long and difficult. But small changes in our buying decisions lead to big impacts, and soon we'll be on our way to applying our favourite eyeshadow guilt-free.