The world it seems has an insatiable demand for palm oil, it is the most widely used vegetable oil on Earth, pick up any cosmetic and chances are you’ll find palm oil in the ingredient list,

Not surprising then, it is one of the biggest fights being fought by environmental activists right now. Deforestation, displacement of wildlife and people and child labour are just some of the knock on effects of the palm oil industry.

There are two species of oil palm, elaeis guineensis and elaeis oleifer. There are two types of oil that can be derived from the oil palm tree; palm kernel that comes from the seed and palm oil, which comes from the fruit of the tree.

Crude palm oil is used for the manufacture of soap and the food industry, in the personal care industry palm kernel oil is used to produce fatty acids and alcohols, which are substances used for emulsifier and surfactant manufacturers.

Given the fact that the generic term ‘vegetable oil’ can mean palm oil and the numerous palm oil derivatives, it can be tricky to identify whether a product contains palm oil, here are a few to look out for:

  • If it contains the word palm such as palm kernel, palm fruit oil, palmate, glyceryl, stearate, palmitic acid, Palm stearine, palmitoyl oxostearamide, palmitoyl tetrapeptide-3
  • Popular surfactants including sodium laureth and lauryl sulfate and lauryl lactylate/sulphate are derivates of palm.
  • The following are all palm oil derived emulsifiers that are often used in organic skincare: Cetearyl olivate, sorbitan olivate, sorbitan stearate, cetearyl glucoside, glyceryl stearate and glyceryl oleate

Palm trees are very efficient making it a handy oil that can be produced per acre more than other oils, such as soy and coconut.To produce palm oil in sufficient quantities to meet expanding demand, farmers in Southeast Asia have cleared large areas of tropical forest rich in biodiversity to create room for large palm tree plantations. Recently, palm oil production is the leading cause of deforestation in countries such as Indonesia and other equatorial states, where ever smaller rain forests grow. In recent years, the orangutan population in Indonesia, which depends on tropical forests, has decreased by 50%.

Deforestation of these forests is an essential contributor to global warming, given the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) stored by trees that remain on their own. After the forests are cut down, tons of CO2 goes to the sky, where they cause the most damage. Also, when oil palm plantations do not replace them, rain forests take part in maintaining water sources by taking in rainfall and then dumping them into rivers, minimising Soil depletion and flooding.

The ecosystems most susceptible to the spread of oil palm plantations are tropical forests and peatlands. Peatlands are marshlands where soils consist of decomposed peat vegetation. Peat acts like a sponge absorb water and help prevent flooding. It also packs a good volume of carbon.

When the peatlands drain, the accumulated carbon reacts with the air, releasing co2 into the environment, which then increases the greenhouse gas concentration. Dry peat becomes more flammable, which increases the chances of large fires when plantation operators use light to work on and ignite waste in firms.

Emissions of Greenhouse gas also occur when the rain forest is cut from plantations of palm oil. Worse, plantations of palm oil accumulate biodiversity in low levels, which means that most animals and plants that lived in tropical forests must be destroyed or lost. Such farms are not suitable for animals, and endangered creatures such as the Sumatran rhino, the Sumatran tiger and the orangutan are threatened. In the past 16 years alone, the quest for palm oil has led to the death of an estimated 100,000 orangutans.

A simple boycott of palm oil and products containing it may be useless, because a decline in demand may force the companies behind the plantations to participate in more intensive timber extraction. And widespread land conversion to agricultural land, which would greatly increase the commitment to the land, air, and water. Countries involved in the production of palm oil are responsible for regulating the industry and providing adequate tools for its application. But with big profits coming from the sale of palm oil, Indonesian officials and others do not want to suppress their golden goose.

Several of the huge producers of palm oil are working with banks and non-profit groups trying to green the industry. In 2003, about 200 commercial organizations from the worldwide palm oil supply chain convened and formed (RSPO) Round table on Sustainable Palm Oil to boost palm oil growth. As for the environment. The RSPO is working to develop definitions and criteria for sustainable palm oil production, while at the same time promoting the adoption of methods that more respect the environment throughout the sector. The group celebrated its first supply of environmentally friendly palm oil to Europe in November last year.

Around the world, many organizations are working hard to manage and eliminate the problems of deforestation associated with palm oil. But 15 years down and only 17% of the palm oil extracted can be labeled as sustainable palm oil certified.

Consumer pressure acts as the only solution to force manufacturers to think about more sustainable methods. Check labels, ask questions, and look for RSPO – certified palm oil that manufacturers must follow strict rules.

So as you can see not all palm cultivation is bad. There are some examples out there of good growing practices that incorporate palm. However over the years, it is the industrialisation of the palm crops which has caused the most problems.

The Naked Chemist is about transparency, and removal of palm oil from our formulas is in progress, we campaign to educate customers about the environmental degradation caused by the current cultivation of oil palm crops and the devestating effects of deforestation

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