Where there is a will there is a way

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Palm Oil in soap - Good magazine article

I never shared this article on my blog - as I had shared it on an ill-fated Facebook group instead. However, I digitized every word of it and saved it. So here it is - the words of this article have been reproduced exactly for education and benevolent purposes - published by Good magazine in their June/July 2009 issue.
Not having a bar of it 
Horrified to learn where the main ingredient in her soap comes from, Jean Hedges goes in search of a bar with a clean conscience“I've just been watching a programme about palm oil,” my partner Ed blurts as he bursts into the bathroom. “They're cutting down rainforests to grow palm oil, so you can have it in your soap. And your brand is one of the worst!”

I dive into the cupboard for a pack of my Dove Sensitive Skin soap. “There's no palm oil in here,” I say, spitting out toothpaste. But I suspect I'm wrong. Sodium palmate, the label says; I later learn it's made by reacting palm oil with lye. Unilever, which owns the Dove brand, is the biggest single buyer of palm oil in the world.

“Okay,” I sigh. “I'll add palm oil to the list of things I won't buy,” along with caged eggs and chickens, unnecessary food preservatives, colours and flavours ...the list keeps growing.

The documentary was right. Global demand for palm oil is increasing by six to ten percent a year. Producers of palm oil are cutting down huge tracts of rainforest to make room for plantations of oil palms, primarily in Malaysia and Indonesia. At the current rate of logging, the UN estimates that 98 percent of Indonesian forests will be destroyed by 2020.

As well as contributing to climate change-- tropical deforestation accounts for one quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions -- accelerating palm oil production is destroying orangutan habitats. The Auckland Zoo says orangutans will be extinct in less than ten years if the current growth in oil palm plantations continues.

To be fair, only about seven percent of palm oil is used in the cosmetics industry. Much greater amounts are used in biofuel and food manufacture. Palm oil is the second-most widely used consumed oil, after soy. It's an ingredient in many food products -- cookies, cakes, crackers, processed foods, pet food -- but I can easily find food that doesn't contain palm oil. There are very few alternatives for commercial beauty products, as I soon discover.

At the supermarket, I look for soap without palm oil, also known as arecaceae elaeis (its botanical name), palm kernel oil, sodium palm kernelate, sodium palmate, sodium palmitate…pretty mucn anything with the word 'palm' somewhere on the label. Lauric acid and glycerine may also indicate palm oil has been used. It can also be labelled 'vegetable oil', since New Zealand has no law making it compulsory to label a specific vegetable oil.

I pick up soap after soap from the supermarket shelves. All contain palm oil in some form or other. Spying the Ecostore soap, I grab it happily. Palm oil-free soap, at last? Well, no. All Ecostore soaps contain palm oil—although the company is committed to buying it from the most ethical suppliers it can find.

Ecostore is an affiliate member of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oll (RSPO). Founded in 2004, the Malaysia­based organisation oversees an audit programme to certify the sustainable production of palm oil. The first shipment of RSPO-certified palm oil was made in November 2008.

Greenpeace, however, believes the RSPO's sustainabillty criteria are inadequate, and says it's failing to enforce even those minimum standards. It investigated RSPO-certified palm oil supplier United Plantations, andfound it received its certification for plantations in Malaysia while continuing destructive practices in Indonesia.

Ecostore chief executive Malcolm Rands acknowledges the RSPO is far from perfect, “but it’s the best initiative out there”. Many suppliers have been around for centuries, he says, and the issue is far from black and white.

Still, I’m determined to find an alternative. I go to my local health food store—and leave empty-handed. The local farmer’s market leaves me similarly disappointed.

The soap sold at your local farmer’s market may not even be handmade. You can buy soap blocks at Trade Me, melt them, add fragrances and pour the result into moulds. Such soaps are ‘handmade’, even though the maker doesn’t know what ingredients went into the base of the soap. I consider making my own soap from scratch, but lye is caustic and highly corrosive, so I decide against it. Instead, I hit the internet to continue my search.

Palm oil-free soaps from Lush (http://www.lushnz.com/) will be available in New Zealand by the end of the year. The company has switched all its UK soap production to a new base of rapeseed, coconut and sunflower oils, reducing its annual palm oil consumption by 250 tonnes. Lush’s Sydney kitchen, which supplies New Zealand stores, will begin manufacturing palm oil-free soaps in August 2009.

Another ethical retailer, The Body Shop, has taken a different approach. One of the first RSPO members, it felt the industry-run group wasn’t moving quickly enough, so in 2007 The Body Shop began sourcing organic palm oil from the Colombia-based Daaban Group. Daabon is certified by the Rainforest Alliance, SA 8000, EcoCert and the FLO (Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International), and has pioneered organics in South America.

Closer to home, a couple of small companies producing genuine handmade soap offer to make me palm oil-free bars, but warn me it’ll cost more. “I have to use more coconut oil so the soap isn't too soft,” explains Linda Wilkinson from Just Soap (http://www.justsoap.co.nz/). Coconut oil is more expensive, so her palm oil-free soaps cost 30 cents extra.

Liz Brook from LizzieBee Soaps (www.lizziebee.co.nz) also offers to make me some palm oil-free soap and, as she lives near me, I take her up on the offer. The resulting soap is soft, smooth, lathers well, and leaves my skin feeling moist and supple. I love it.

And my Dove soap? Following public pressure led by Greenpeace last year (www.greenpeace.org/dove), Unilever has committed to purchasing all its palm oil form certified sustainable sources by 2015. It’s good to be reminded that people like me can make companies change (see page 103 for more info on what you can do)—but now I’ve gone palm-oil free, I won’t go back.

How is soap made?Our ancestors made their soap with tallow (aka beef fat) but nowadays soap is usually made with vegetable oil and lye (better known as caustic soda). The oil and lye react to produce natural glycerine, water and soap. Good soap retains glycerine, a moisturizer.

Palm oil is a very cheap vegetable oil that sets hard at room temperaure, like animal fat and the more expensive coconut oil. This makes the soap solid.

Tallow soaps are still available, so if you want an animal-product-free soap, avoid sodium tallowate as an ingredient. Tallow can also block pores, so you may want to avoid it for that reason.



PHOTO: A palm oil plantation next to native forest.

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