When I first started making skincare I wanted something that worked for my skin. Skincare should enhance and protect our natural beauty so, for me, that meant everything in my creams and oils had to be 100% natural. Right from the beginning though, I knew I also needed to be able to apply my cosmetics guilt-free and I couldn’t do that if their very existence was harming the plant. That is why all Olive & Joyce cosmetics are palm oil free.
But what is palm oil and is it really so bad for the environment?
Whilst many of us assume that natural products are going to be eco-friendly, this is often not the case. After all, we’re using the world’s natural resources and producing anything comes with a carbon footprint. Nothing is black and white in sustainability. Making sustainable choices is more about thorough research, weighing up alternatives and finding the least harmful solution. This is how I have ensured that all ingredients used in my range are ethically sourced and sustainable.
The issue of palm oil though is not a straightforward one, so I wanted to take the time to find out the truth about palm oil and to share this with you.
With the UK joining the CPTPP trade agreement, palm oil has hit the headlines again though I’m disappointed to see it’s still not being treated as the urgent hot topic it should be. After all, many people won’t know that part of the UK’s deal to join the CPTPP involved us agreeing to slash tariffs on Malaysian palm oil from 2% to 0%. So, nothing at all then.
According to the UK Government, we take in 1% or less of palm oil from Malaysia and UK Secretary Of State For Business And Trade, Kemi Badenoch, claims that moving from a 2% tariff to 0% will not have a big effect on deforestation. She may well be right, but what message does it send about how much the UK cares about climate change?
The messaging around this part of the trade agreement is unclear at best and purposefully misleading if you’re being cynical. In a recent interview, Badenoch begins by claiming that the UK’s relationship with the CPTPP will allow us to impact positively on sustainability, then very quickly she moves to defend palm oil as ‘actually a great product’.
So what is the truth about palm oil? Why is it in so many of our products? Do we really need it? How is palm oil damaging the environment? Should the UK be slashing tariffs on palm oil? And how might this affect our impact on tackling (or not tackling) climate change?
What Is Palm Oil?
Let’s begin by looking at what palm oil actually is. Palm oil is an already saturated oil used extensively in all sorts of products. It is long-lasting, versatile and cheap to produce which makes it ideal for a great many uses. In fact, it can be found in many everyday items. 68% of the palm oil produced is used in food, 5% for biofuels and 27% for cosmetics, largely due to its moisturising qualities.
Oil palms are native to Africa. They used to be very tall, making it difficult to retrieve the fruit, so they are now bred to be far shorter with a thicker truck. It is in the fruit of the oil palms where the oil can be found. They grow quickly and produce more oil than other oil-producing plants which is a leading reason palm oil is such a cheap product. Simply put - they’re efficient.
Why Is Palm Oil Bad For The Environment?
Oil palms only grow in the tropics, which is a leading reason it’s become so troublesome. The environment they thrive in is already taken up (or was) by the rainforests. Rainforests are known as the ‘lungs of the earth’ because they draw down carbon dioxide and release oxygen into the air. Their carbon dioxide absorption helps to keep our atmosphere in balance and an increase in carbon dioxide will not only lead to health implications for humans and animals but will also have a significant impact on climate change. In short - rainforests are critical in our fight against global warming.
Due to reliance on palm oil, however, rainforests are being cut down to make room for these tropical trees which is what has led palm oil production to have such a negative impact on deforestation. Unfortunately this not only impacts on climate change but it's also destroying habitats of wild animals, including orangutans, as made famous by this now-banned Iceland advert:
Rainforests are diverse and complex networks that increase biodiversity also in soil meaning more nutrients and healthier land. Planting rows and rows of oil palms strips the soil of biodiversity, as do the chemicals used in farming.
There is also a human cost that’s far more difficult to measure. In places like Malaysia, where palm oil plantations have lifted many out of poverty, it can also be responsible for labour abuses. Many plantations have faced accusations of trafficking workers from poorer places under false pretences and not protecting them under what we, in the UK, would consider fair conditions or pay. Since much of this happens in ways that make it difficult to regulate, and because palm oil is manufactured from many different plantations, it is near impossible for buyers to know for sure whether the palm oil they are using has come with the cost of human exploitation. Although this is, in fairness, a problem that we face with many of our farmed products and is not exclusive to palm oil production.
Why Are We Still Using Palm Oil?
I did warn you that this is not a black-and-white issue and it is certainly true that palm oil does have some benefits. If it weren’t an efficient product it would not be being used in so many items. It can also extend shelf life which can cut down on food waste and lengthen product longevity which should mean we need to buy less.
Other alternatives are not as efficient. No other oil-producing plant can supply the high amount of oil per plant that oil palm can. So rapeseed, olive oil, coconut and other alternatives need far more land space to produce the equivalent amount of oil.
When you consider this, it seems that oil palm is more sustainable. However, it does come back to where it is grown. Cutting down rainforests has a far bigger impact than using land in less biodiverse areas. Since other types of oil do not require a tropical climate it can be argued that using up more hectares doesn’t have as much impact as using up fewer hectares somewhere that is more essential to the health of our planet. As far as I can see, the maths on this has either not been done or is not exact. What is clear is there is no perfect solution.
What Should We Be Doing About Palm Oil?
Palm oil is used so extensively it would be near impossible for consumers to cut it out completely. Palm oil is mostly found in highly processed items so one thing we can do is to eat more whole foods. This can also be better for our health, as well as for the planet. We can also avoid palm oil in products where it is not completely necessary.
At Olive & Joyce, we have proved that you don’t need palm oil in cosmetics. Our product has a long enough shelf life to keep fresh until it’s all used up as most of our products are made for daily use. As far as possible, we also make skincare to order. This reduces waste and the need for extended shelf life, making using palm oil unnecessary. We also use other more sustainable ingredients to lock in moisture and encourage the skin’s natural oils to work their own unique magic. So consumers can support businesses that don’t use palm oil.
As discussed though, palm oil does require less land space than other alternatives so cutting it out of food products completely could cause a different problem. Unfortunately, it is for governments and other bodies to encourage growing in areas where we are doing less damage. The tropical climate needed for oil palms is so precious that continuing to use this wild land for farming needs to be stopped, though it is important to first find sustainable alternatives. We need better farming practices and better regulation around where crops are grown to ensure we are allowing land to recover and the soil to remain biodiverse.
Unfortunately, consumer influence here is not as strong as it may be when it comes to other environmental issues. Palm oil is simply too widespread to make boycotting it completely possible. Besides, we don't have alternative oil farming in place yet to replace it.
Overall, I am disappointed in the UK's decision to eliminate tariffs on palm oil from Malaysia. Not only does it make trade easier and cheaper but it also sends the wrong message. Again, profit and trade agreements have been prioritised over the protection of the planet. We have missed yet another opportunity to use the money raised from tariffs to research sustainable alternatives and fund environmental projects that could at the very least attempt to offset the damage being done.
I am proud to be offering palm oil-free cosmetics but the problem is too large for just small businesses like mine to have a big enough impact. Therefore, I urge you to look out for products that are palm oil free but I also ask you to take a few minutes to email your local MP and stress the importance of the UK to be working towards eliminating deforestation. It’s easy to be pessimistic but, at the very least, they need to know we care. And we need to know we’re doing something to protect the future of the world’s rainforests.