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.
What is Palm Oil?
There are two species of oil palm, elaeis guineensis and elaeis oleifer, and 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 in 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.
Alternate Names for Palm Oil
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 it. 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/sulfate 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.
The Major Problems of Palm Cultivation
Palm trees are very efficient, making it a handy source that can have more produced per acre 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 has become the leading cause of deforestation in countries such as Indonesia and other equatorial states, wherever 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 it causes 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 to 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 palm plantations. Worse, plantations of palm 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, as this 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.
Sustainable Palm Oil
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 – the Roundtable 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 labelled 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 palm crops which has caused the most problems.
The Naked Chemist is about transparency, and the 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 devastating effects of deforestation.