By Orven Mallari | August 4, 2020
Grantas is showing its dedication to ethical and sustainable cosmetics by never (ever!) using palm oil in our products. But where are these concerns surrounding palm oil coming from? And why is it important to be aware of this one plant in particular? In this blog I will tackle these questions, as well as explain why Grantas is and will continue to be, palm-oil free.
What is Palm Oil?
Palm oil as we know it is a refined, processed version of the red palm oil present in the fruit of the oil palm tree. Native to Central and West Africa, red palm oil has been used as a cooking oil in the region for thousands of years. When European colonizers “discovered” the oil palm in 1848, they were amazed to find that harvesting from the oil palm tree leads to a yield 10 times better than that from soybeans or canola. They thought of it as a possible source of oil, which could be used to fuel industrial revolutions. In fact, the first uses of palm oil were as gear lubricant and as soap (hence being the namesake of Palmolive soaps).
Today, palm oil has turned out to be remarkably versatile, leading to it being used in a wide range of products. In fact, palm oil also serves as a good replacement for trans fats, which has led to a boom in the use of palm oil in different foods. Most vegetable oils are now mostly made of refined palm oil. In regards to cosmetics, palm oil is a common ingredient in most of the lipsticks that you see on shelves; it provides lipsticks with structure and temperature resistance (i.e. it will hold color well and be less likely to melt). As of today, there are 20,000,000 hectares of land full of oil palm trees--over 5 times the size of Switzerland.
Photo: The scarlet fruits of this oil palm tree are a source of rich palm oil used in almost every facet of daily life.
Photo credit to Bongoman (Wikipedia)
What’s the problem with palm oil?
The profitability of palm oil has led to mass farming practices in other tropical areas such as Central America and Southeast Asia. The deforestation in Indonesia, in particular, was mostly caused by the use of slash-and-burn tactics, which in addition to the high amount of carbon-rich peat in the Indonesian rainforests, has caused annual hazes in Southeast Asia. Large swaths of black smoke have led to states of emergency across Indonesian provinces. Dangerous levels of smoke and smog have lasted for months and caused up to 100,000 premature deaths due to respiratory illnesses in 2015 alone. In addition to reports from watchdog agencies such as Humans Rights Watch of indigenous people being forcibly displaced from their lands to make more farming land, palm oil has also come with the price of blood. Finally, the deforestation of these rainforests is also the cause for the endangerment of many native animal species, especially of the orangutan. It would not be hyperbole to say that the palm oil industry depicts a microcosm of all the problems associated with unfettered global capitalism.
Photo: The deforestation over Indonesian lands has led to all three species of orangutan are now classified as “Critically Endangered” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
Photo credit to: Pixabay (Pexels)
What’s being done to address this?
The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), established in 2004, sought a unified front against illegal deforestation and in promoting sustainable palm oil farming. This has opened the doors to a conversation across all levels of the global palm oil trade, from local farmers to multinational corporations to green activists. However, since the RSPO only functions with consensus, progress has been slow and ineffective. Some have even nicknamed it “Really Slow Progress Overall”.
However, these problems have continued because palm oil farming remains profitable for large companies such as Unilever and Nestlé, who despite having a shocking Greenpeace ad spread against them, continue to engage in questionable dealings on their Indonesian oil palm farms. It can however be challenging for a consumer to simply avoid palm oil. Palm oil can be difficult to locate on an ingredient list, since manufacturers can disguise palm oil and its derivatives by using vague terms like “vegetable fat”, “glyceryl”, and “stearate”. So what can we do?
We can try our best. We realize that the solution to these problems cannot include misguided uses of palm oil, such as using it as a source of “more sustainable” biodiesel. In fact, “sustainable” palm oil, might not exist based on how much of it we use today. At Grantas, we have decided that until the solution becomes more clear, we will not participate in the palm oil industry, which has played an instrumental role in the destruction of communities in the Global South and their environment. We will keep ourselves informed, and we will continue to produce products that prioritize our people and our planet.
About the Author: Orven Mallari is currently a senior at Yale University. As an Environmental Engineering major, they are passionate about pursuing sustainable solutions to tackle global issues. When not reading up on environmental justice, they spend their time watching Premier League soccer, dreaming about visiting every National Park across the U.S., and cooking pasta.