A lot of people are concerned about palm oil production. Palm oil production has some serious environmental issues associated with it to do with sustainability and destruction of precious wildlife habitats. Older readers might remember serious air pollution caused by palm oil farming in Asia some years back. The symbol of this has become the orang utan, whose numbers have been severely curtailed by the loss of their habitat to the palm plantations.
I am always a bit uncomfortable about the way these emotive stories get used even for generally good causes. Emotion is a good call to action but it is rarely a good guide to action. In this case I wonder if the focus on the orang utan detracts from the wider issue of biodiversity. Also I can’t help but think that maybe the guys out there on the ground in the palm oil producing countries might find it a bit offensive. How would we react to people in Asia boycotting British farm produce because of the way red squirrel numbers are declining I wonder?
But I digress. It is quite understandable that people would want to avoid products that are made in ways that are damaging to the environment. And it is very laudable too. So companies have started asking questions about the raw materials that they are buying.
You might be surprised by just how many of the ingredients in your personal care products start life as palm oil. It is probably about 10 to 20% by weight. Without knowing a lot about the chemistry and the production processes you won’t be able to identify them all. Common materials like cetearyl alcohol, glyceryl stearate and sodium lauryl sulfate give no clue to their origin from their names. And in any case they are only the tip of the iceberg. Thousands of other ingredients are also generally derived from palm oil.
But although the cosmetic industry is a very big user of palm oil products, its usage is dwarfed by their use in foods. Palm oil is a huge industry in every sense of the word. The only thing to which it can be compared is the crude oil industry. And the comparison is surprisingly close. For a start, the raw material as it stands is pretty useless without a lot of processing. Just as crude oil goes straight from the well to a refinery, the palm kernels go straight into a processing plant. And like crude oil, the source material varies from place to place and the requirements of the end users change over time.
This means there is in effect a big pool of palm oil and its derivatives from which the various palm oil products are made. In fact some of it isn’t even palm – coconut oil is very similar to palm oil and can be substituted wholly or partially for palm oil if need be. So just as you can’t say run your car on petrol exclusively from the North Sea or buy special Venezuela produced lubricant oil, you can’t trace back your palm oil derived cosmetic ingredient to the farm in, say, Borneo where it was grown.
So what does the concerned environmental activist who wants to avoid ruining the planet do? Well one option is to scrupulously avoid all palm oil derived products. This not impossible, but you won’t have much choice. If anyone is interested I could probably do a blog post on it. (Sadly one option, the famous Aleppo soap is not currently available – I really hope that tradition survives the problems in Syria.)
If you want to have the full range of products which we are all used to you are going to have to live with the fact that they are going to contain palm oil which could have come from just about anywhere on the planet where the climate suits its growth.
There is one possible solution in the form of the Green Palm project. This is a really bizarre idea. They have identified a scheme for growing palm in a sustainable and environmentally friendly way. But they haven’t been able to solve the practical problem of processing it. So what they do is pay farmers to follow their guidelines. The crop then goes into the normal pool of palm products with everything else and can end up in your shampoo or a tub of margarine at random.
For every tonne of palm oil grown using their approved method, they generate a certificate for that amount of oil which they can sell to a cosmetic company. So in effect the cosmetic company can say that the amount of palm oil that they have used has been grown using a sustainable process. It is a bit like planting a tree to offset your carbon footprint.
Now this is sort of logical, but is also a bit hard to explain. It doesn’t lend itself to simply putting a label on your pack saying ‘palm oil free’ or ‘made with sustainable palm oil’. In any case, I have a feeling that it isn’t what the people who are looking for this sort of thing have in mind when they seek out ethical brands. It doesn’t help that the Green Palm people have modelled their scheme on carbon trading, so you can bid for your certificates on a special market created for the purpose. Maybe I am old fashioned, but to me being ethical isn’t something that depends on the result of an auction.
But it is a way of encouraging one form of response to an environmental problem. If you are interested in this initiative there is a lot more detail on their website. If you think this is something you would like to support you ought at least to have a look at their ideas of what constitutes sustainable palm oil production.
My opinion, no more or less valid than anyone else’s, is that the Green Palm ethical trading approach is not the way to go. To my mind the basic problem here is our society’s huge appetite for the Earth’s resources. While this sort of scheme might have a positive effect and might well be cost effective in some sense, I don’t think it is a radical enough approach to the scale of the problem. I am much more excited by ideas like the one from Perry Romanowski for using technology to get a lot more value out of less land. If we can do that we can return farm land currently devoted to all manner of crops back to the wild. That seems to me where we should be concentrating our efforts.