Thanks to the wider conversation about plastic waste, the beauty industry’s environmental impact has been called into question over the last few years. While excessive packaging is obvious to spot and tangibly changed, what about the ingredients hiding in the products in your bathroom?
Case in point: palm oil. In a new BBC3 documentary airing tonight, Unmasked: Make-Up's Big Secret, Emmy Burbidge, a makeup artist from Somerset travels to Papua New Guinea to see the damage done by this ingredient. While it's widely documented that palm oil is terrible news for the planet, less known is that it’s used in a whopping 70% of cosmetic products, primarily as an emulsifier and surfactant. The beauty industry therefore has a part to play in the deforestation caused by palm oil production, said to have destroyed 8% of the world’s forests between 1990 and 2008.
Emmy sees this damage up close when she visits the Bewani plantation, one of the largest in Papua New Guinea. While the physical destruction is blatantly obvious – we see devastating images of bare land where flourishing forests once stood – the documentary focuses on the human cost of palm production. Emmy meets a community that was promised a large sum of cash, homes and a school from an oil company in exchange for land. However, the village elder reveals that the company didn’t keep its promise; we see small children, visibly ill and barefoot, working on the farm. "We used to live off the forest, it was like our supermarket, we now have lost everything," another local tells her.
It’s shocking to watch but what the documentary doesn’t delve into is the environmental or ecological impact of palm oil production – its huge greenhouse gas emissions, for instance, or the loss of endangered species like orangutans. The role of the beauty industry compared to other industries such as food or fuel is not explored either. Much of this is shrouded in secrecy but a Greenpeace report from 2018 found that palm oil companies supplying some of the world’s largest brands including Unilever and Colgate-Palmolive had destroyed an area of rainforest almost twice the size of Singapore in less than three years.
As the documentary rightly points out, boycotting palm oil isn't the solution. Palm is the most productive oil around and alternatives such as sunflower or coconut need up to 10 times more land to produce the same amount. Sustainable palm oil – harvested without cutting down trees and by treating workers fairly – is agreed by environmentalists to be the best course of action. Emmy visits one of these farms to see how they operate. Workers at the Kumbango Plantation use 14m poles to cut down the fruit which is then picked up off the forest floor. The company promises safety equipment, transport and breakfast for its workers but as Emmy joins them at 4.30am for the start of their long physical shift, it’s clear that the working conditions are still pretty basic, which begs the question: is enough being done?
So what can we do to help? As Emmy highlights, choosing products with sustainable palm oil is the obvious step but it's easier said than done. Beauty product labels are notoriously tricky to read and palm oil can appear under 100+ names (see a list here). It can be a nightmare to decode without a magnifying glass and a chemistry degree. The RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) has a list on its website of brands that have been certified as using sustainable palm oil (follow these instructions to find out more) but unlike the widely used Fair Trade or Soil Association logos, the RSPO badge rarely makes it on to packaging.
Living in a more sustainable way is a tricky path to navigate and as a consumer it can feel as if your hands are tied. As the documentary notes, big business needs to drive big change. They speak to Alexandra Palt, sustainability director at L’Oréal, who advocates the use of sustainable palm oil: "If done in a sustainable way, palm oil is a very good vegetable oil. The alternative isn't saying no to palm oil but challenging the whole supply chain." Considering the majority of the beauty industry is owned by seven companies, other corporations need to follow in their footsteps and implement sustainable means of sourcing palm oil as well as clear labelling for consumers. There is hope on the production side, too. Emmy visits a plantation in Papua New Guinea where genetically modified seedlings – bred to produce 10 times more fruit on one tree – are being grown.
With growing transparency across the beauty industry (an upside to call-out culture on social media), brands are increasingly being held accountable. Alongside trying to buy from brands that use sustainable palm oil, taking to social media to complain about those who don’t is one of the best ways to effect change. And this stretches well beyond makeup. With the equivalent of 300 football fields of rainforest being destroyed every hour, it’s important to remember that beauty is only one part of the palm oil puzzle.
Unmasked: Make-Up's Big Secret is available on BBC Three now