Beauty editor Karen van Ede wrote an excellent article about palm oil in cosmetics for Vogue Nederland. Looking for answers whether palm oil can be produced in a responsible manner, she explores alternatives when buying cosmetics. A clear and nuanced piece, including concrete actions that we, as consumers, can take.
Author: Karen van Ede
Palm oil is the perfect substitute for the animal fats that are used to make salves, shampoos and lip balms so creamy. Palm oil is vegan, has no scent or taste, produces a smooth texture in cosmetics, prevents drying out of a product, and binds the different ingredients together. Palm oil derives from the fruit of the oil palm. The yield per hectare is relatively large in comparison to, for example, sunflowers and soya beans. But the growing demand and poor policy have led to worrying nightmares of deforestation, forest fires, displaced orangutans, and poisoned soil.
Alexandra Vosmaer from Forestwise explains, “The manner in which palm oil is cultivated is not natural and therefore cannot be continued forever. Monoculture must be replaced by mixed crops, preferably an agroforest, as happens in nature. That type of forest is not full just of oil substitutes, but of everything that we need. It demands another way of thinking and working. Big companies find it difficult to make this switch, they will only do it when the demand for biodiverse products arrives.”
As a consumer you can try to avoid buying products with non-sustainable palm oil. That’s no sinecure. Environmental journalist and lawyer Janneke Bazelmans (she wrote the book VERKAPT) says, “I know that it is difficult to find out what contains palm oil and that most shops have no idea about that. There are over 180 alternative names for palm oil. You would have to contact the manufacturer and even they do not always have the answer. For example, they buy in glycerin from a third party, which could be made of palm oil or something else.”
Stopping is not an option
Everything depends on the difference between non-sustainable, sustainable, and organic. Palm oil is sustainable, given the amount of land required to cultivate it, but its production method often is not. Stopping the use of palm oil entirely is not an option, according to producers and buyers, because then everyone in the industry would have no income. There must be another way. Organic is more expensive, so we as consumers must be prepared to pay a bit more.
The Dutch company Natural Habitats produces organic palm oil, not in Indonesia but in Ecuador. Monique van Wijnbergen from Natural Habitats says, “For sustainable, organic palm oil, no chemicals are used, and the production is small-scale. Organic palm oil is being used to a limited extent by the cosmetics manufacturers, and it would be great if the rest would follow.” One of the buyers of organic palm oil is Dr. Bronner’s (via hollandandbarrett.nl). And there is enough, according to Van Wijnbergen. “The palmdoneright.com website contains a list of brands that already use our organic palm oil.”
Centuries-old massive trees
The major cosmetics manufacturers do intend to change something. L’Oréal, Coty and Estée Lauder have stated that they are cooperating in a Roundtable On Sustainable Palm Oil, but it doesn’t seem to be getting very far. The intention to use sustainable palm oil exists, but certification is still almost impossible. “For a company that buys palm oil derivatives, it is difficult to trace what kind of oil was used. But more and more sustainable palm oil derivatives are being used,” reported the Dutch Cosmetics Association hopefully on its website.
L’Oréal has claimed since 2014 that it is able to trace the origin of the palm oil and derivatives it uses. From that year, the aim of L’Oréal has definitely been to have nothing more to do with deforestation and other associated problems. Unfortunately, the deadline sometimes gets extended.
According to Forestwise, the solution can be found in fats from natural forests. A few years ago, Alexandra Vosmaer left for the rainforest in Borneo to work in an ape sanctuary. With her boyfriend she set up Forestwise, which produces high-quality ingredients for care products from nuts from giant trees that have been growing there for centuries. No tree had to be cut down for the fats that they produce. And the farmers can earn more than with an oil palm plantation.
How you can contribute
But what can you do? Be more aware of what you are buying for a start. Lush makes palm oil-free soap, and brands like Eco Minerals have palm oil-free cosmetics. Unfortunately, the substitutes for palm oil — like coconut oil — are not very sustainable. “Consume less,” says Vosmaer, “Know what you are buying. I hope that increasingly more people are prepared to choose good products and feel more committed to knowing the background and origin of products.”
Just like with flying, you could in theory compensate via companies that plant trees (like Byron Bay), buy products made with organic palm oil (Dr. Bronner’s), or donate something for each product you buy to a Dutch organization like orang-oetanrescue.nl. Another good idea is to approach your favorite brand through social media and ask them about their policy regarding palm oil. Because change will have to happen soon, that is abundantly clear.
Palm can be grown for good, bringing benefits to:
Together, we can influence change for: