The Palm Tree – The Cosmetic Industry’s Base

Palm is an important source of cosmetic raw materials
Palm is an important source of cosmetic raw materials

Some things I write about seem quite important to me but somehow don’t really resonate with the people who read my blog. For example I wrote a post on palm oil which explained how the palm oil business works.  Nobody read it.  But I still think it matters so here we go again. Basically palm is grown on plantations and then processed to produce palm oil. This all goes into a big system from where it is moved around to produce a bewildering number of products.

I am very impressed by the ingenuity of the chemists who can do amazing things to the very basic raw material. But they need something to work on, and that something is carbon chains, that plants make by pulling carbon dioxide from the atmosphere using sunlight as their energy source. This is something that humans can’t do efficiently, so we need to devote large amounts of land to growing these crops.

It really is an enormous business, and in some ways you could probably say that the production and exploitation of palm oil is the second biggest industrial activity in the world. So this is really a big deal in every sense of the word. A lot of they way our planet looks like is down to palm oil. And a lot of the products you use depend on it.

And yet, at the end of the day palm is not really the crucial issue here. If a freak disease wiped out the palm tree as a species we’d soon find another source of the carbon chains that the whole thing relies on. Coconut oil is a very close substitute for example. But just about any seed has the potential to provide the feedstocks for the industry that currently uses predominantly palm oil.

The reason I have returned to this subject is a news story where a company has been thrown out of an organisation called RSPO. The scale of the palm industry is such that it is having a huge impact on the environment in the countries in which it is grown. This has led to pressure for it to be produced ‘responsibly’. RSPO’s initials stand for the Roundtable on Responsible Palm Oil. Their aim is to produce palm oil in a sustainable and environmentally friendly way. They are comprised of representatives of the big palm oil producers and users. They concern themselves with such issues as deforestation and workers’ rights. It is good to know that these issues are being taken seriously and even better to learn that they are actually taking action on them. Last month one of the big palm oil producers has been told that until it improves the way it deals with its staff and drops a damaging development, then RSPO supporting companies including Unilever will stop buying their palm oil.

It’s hard to see how an organisation like RSPO can do any harm, and it is quite likely that it does a lot of good.  But I don’t think it can ever be the answer.  The palm oil business is just too big to be controlled by well meaning initiatives like this.  And in fact, it isn’t even really the palm oil that is the issue here.  Palm oil is the biggest by far, but other oils are equally good sources of carbon chains.  I have already mentioned it: coconut oil for example in a typical year might well account for 20% of vegetable oil traded, and can easily be used instead of palm oil for a lot of purposes.  Voluntary standards are great things, but official sanctions have a much greater chance of having an effect.

Consumer pressure can also be a powerful force to improve the environment. But in the case of palm oil I can’t really see how consumers can do very much.  Few people make the link between destruction of forests and palm oil production in the first place.  And even if you do, you are not going to find it easy to work out which products can be made from palm oil.  And even if you are a cosmetic chemist – even I can’t be sure what the original feedstock of a particular batch of raw material was.  You can boycott goods from a country you disapprove of.  Boycotting something whose origin is so obscured by the means by which it is produced is virtually impossible.

One thing that natural product companies often do is to point out that their ingredients are derived from coconut rather than palm.  This is not something that is easy to prove, but I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt.  It is just about possible to source entirely from coconut oil rather than palm.  But it really is an almost entirely pointless thing to do if you look at the big picture.

Basically we need ways to minimise our impact on the planet, and demonising the palm tree isn’t really helping.

Difference Between Palm Oil and Coconut Oil

It is easy to get mixed up between palm oil and coconut oil.  Palm oil is derived from the nuts of the American Oil Palm, Elaeis guineensis.  Coconut oil comes from the Coconut Palm Cocos nucifera and is derived from the seed of the coconut itself.  The two plants look much the same, they are biologically quite closely related and the chemistry of the oils is pretty similar.

The differences are important for farmers, but don’t really affect the issues of environmental impact greatly.

4 thoughts on “The Palm Tree – The Cosmetic Industry’s Base”

  1. Orangutans are going to be completely wiped out by the palm oil industry. We have to stop palm oil demand immediately!

  2. I was visiting the Orangutan enclosure at Chester Zoo only last week, and there was a panel that points out that palm oil is much more productive per hectare of land than other oils (can’t remember if the other oils mentioned included coconut). Therefore if we all switched to non-palm oil products, even more land would be deforested… As always these issues are more complex than they first appear but I think Colin may be right that official sanctions and laws may be needed.

    1. Yes that’s one of the factors Geraldine. It isn’t surprising that the farmers go for the most productive species.

  3. The other unfortunate thing is that this goes far beyond just natural or cosmetics but, it’s used in so many mass produced food items as well.

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