Boycott Palm Oil! (Or Not?) 7 Questions, 7 Answers * Ask BEAUTYCALYPSE #10

Adventurers, does “palm oil” ring a bell with you? – Tell me in the comments, and please tell me what you think about this (long overdue) palm oil Q&A.

Ever since posting the article Sustainable Palm Oil: A Myth, Busted, I’ve been receiving questions, discussing the topic online and off uncessantly. The post is being shared on social media to this day. But I realised only recently that I’ve never quite adjusted the bitterness of that 2013 post. Things are moving, you see. And while people I discuss it with – as well as attentive or long-time readers – know exactly my position, I thought it wasn’t as clear to someone who just came looking for some reliable and up-to-date information on palm oil problems, someone wondering whether sustainable palm oil can be trusted or has failed completely, and what are the alternatives – and if we really need alternatives. There’s quite a lot to talk about. So let’s fly!

Readers Q&A:
The Palm Oil Confusion

Q1: Should we just boycott palm oil for good?

A: We should definitely boycott so-called conflict palm oil.

Bad news first – conflict palm oil can slip through the nets of most regulatory systems (there are four renowned in the moment: RSPO, Rainforest Alliance, ISCC Plus, and RSB). However, with both public awareness and pressure having grown, the certification bodies are working on improving their own standards step by step.

So while certified sustainable PO doesn’t necessarily have the best pedigree today, it’s more than a decent start. Yes, it’s still challenging to trace PO to the place of origin today. But boycotting all of the palm oil out there would weaken those who fight for more sustainability.

Is the issue complicated? Hell yes. Is it worth five minutes extra effort? You decide. What is air you breathe worth? Air? What am I talking about?

You see, palm oil is NOT a regional problem – even though we might not actually see any of the horrific effects such as child labour, slavery, habitat loss for indigenous people, those of you who care can’t turn a blind eye to this. And if you couldn’t care less about people because, hell, maybe you just don’t, then remind yourself that clearing of rainforests aka deforestation causes massive carbon pollution and climate change – a very urgent, global problem.

And should you ever have to choose between Origin Unknown (and not organic, see question #3) and Certified Sustainable, always choose certified.conflict-palm-oil-in-the-press{Click image to enlarge and read selected statements from the 2015 media coverage}

Q2: I asked [brand name] if they used PO or ingredients based on PO, and they told me that as a natural skincare company, the amount of PO they used was not relevant to the ecological issues I’m worrying about. Is that true?

A: Let me answer with a question: how can I know? 😉 Maybe you should have kept asking them?

Just think about the open question whether or not they deploy PO from unknown sources = potentially conflict PO? Or do they use organic/sustainable PO and just wanted to highlight how little they use? Because these are two very different situations!

If the worst case applies, and the company uses conflict palm oil but points their finger at multinationals who of course use insanely larger amouns of it than an Etsypreneur cooking soap in her kitchen, then their nature-loving philosophy is very questionnable to me. In this situation, what the answer really translates as is this: “it’s just a little fraction of deforestation, maybe even just a tree per year, really nothing to worry about, darling.” That’s ignorant. And also patronising, because “darling” might want to decide herself if she worries about it or not.

Q3: When I asked [brand name] what PO they used, they told me that their oil came from sustainable farming. But the product itself wasn’t certified. What do you think?

A: It really depends on the brand/company and the amount of transparency they are displaying continuously to understand whether you can trust them or not.

I know of several eco skincare, beauty, food companies, owner-run or internationally present, who source their PO from organic farming, for example from farms in South America or Africa. Those farms are too small to cover the big industry needs, but big enough to provide PO for smaller companies. The best news is if the brand can prove that the farms they work with are certified with organic or sustainable labels, or are family-run and the brand knows the farmers personally (it happens!).

Obviously, the devil’s in the details, as usual:

While most companies will be able to tell you where the PO in their products comes from, they will less likely know the value chain of their PO-derivates. These are purchased from ingredient manufacturing companies, and here’s where the transparency usually ends.

What’s a conscious consumer or an aspirational to do? You decide. I avoid PO derivates of unknown origin, always.

You can check your products with the clever codecheck app for example, it can tell “good” PO derivates from potential conflict PO derivates.

Q4: When we say we avoid palm oil in foods this I understand. But how can I spot palm oil based INCI in skincare and makeup? It’s an insane list of tongue twisting syllables!

A: And I hear you!

Well, first it’s key to understand what formulas PO-derivates can be used for in cosmetics – namely for creamy, oily, foamy, liquid or stick formulas above all: foundation, lipstick, lip gloss, lip pencil, eye khol, mascara, eye liner, concealer stick, cushion make-up, shampoo, shower gel, soap bars and liquid soap, lotions and creams, to name a few. It’s not very likely to find PO or derivates in, say, a range of loose mineral powder cosmetics (dry).

Many genuinely ethical and organic brands are PO-savvy themselves, understand our headaches, and would add something like “coconut derived” to an ingredient that could as well have been derived from PO.

With all the others, we have to ask. That’s what the whole green Quest boils down to anyway: asking questions! Possibly until the companies get the importance. So yeah, let’s ask.

Q5: Some say it’s better to use products with RSPO or Rainforest Alliance certified palm oil than with no certification, is that true? What certifications can I look for that’s trustworthy?

It’s a bit repetitive, but I decided to talk about it again to add a detail or two to the picture.

Certifications are important but they can not replace genuine transparency. You can have some nasty ingredients in a certified product, and the cleanest, purest ingredients in a product that carries no certificate at all. The standards vary – and widely!

I believe that certifications are a part of the transformational process that we experience today, the transformation from (conventional) industrial age to a green industrial age: one day, I hope, there will be no other industry than green industry, and there will be no need to certify cosmetics as cruelty-free, as organic, as fair because there will be no other way to produce them.

I hope that this makes my point of view understandable: I avoid PO and PO-derivates as much as I can; but I resort to products based on organic or sustainable PO and derivates if there’s no other way round. I don’t buy any skincare or convenience food/ condiments/ sweets based on PO or PO-derivates of unknown background.palm-oil-questions-and-answers-2016

Not to cause any more confusion by mentioning a cosmetics label here, but it’s relevant for green beauties: in the moment, Greenpeace considers BDIH-certified cosmetics safe in terms of PO (sources: BDIH criteriaCodecheck).

Q6: Is it better to look for palm oil alternatives?

A: The insatiable hunger for industrial foods and convenience products depends on palm oil and drives the demand. Palm oil’s cheap, the trees grow fast, it’s a great, renewable raw material and sustainable – per se.

What if the industry switched to coconut oil or to sunflower oil as a resource? We’ll soon see pretty much same problems pop up where coconuts and sunflowers are grown. Not the plant is the problem. The greed is. The ruthlesness. The lack of foresight.

If we talk about products, let me split the answer in two: food versus beauty.

In terms of health, palm oil is not a healthy fat. Avoiding it is easy by resorting to cooking fresh meals and by boycotting, if you like the term, convenience foods, snacks, condiments, margarine, toppings, chocolates… As a friend of mine would put it: “There’s usually nothing healthy in a food containing palm oil anyway“.

In terms of skincare and beauty, palm oil is not a must. You can easily find a BDIH-certified mascara, a PO and derivates free shampoo, a fine lipstick free from PO/ derivates. (Never forget the derivates!)

I think it’s also about time that the vegan community pursued the idea of conflict palm oil as a non-animal friendly ingredient – after all, conflict palm oil is all about endangered species and massive habitat loss.palm-oil-knowledge

Q7: What’s the solution to the palm oil problem? Is there any?

A: Sourcing 100% sustainable, ethical – or organic – palm oil is the only solution. It would be amazing if consumers in India and China, too, would make themselves heard: from all I read, palm oil is not (yet?) a huge topic there, albeit these are the markets that will be responsible for more palm oil demand and production in the near future.

Part of the solution is public pressure – ask brands to switch to organic or sustainable palm oil.

And may the force be with you.

These have been my answers to your questions: 
Let me hear what you think and please don’t hesitate to share and comment!


Geeking out about all things truly green, healthy and ethical over at (Avatar illustration by A. Goncharenko)

12 Responses

  1. I spotted palm oil in several sports bars. I try to avoid them completely however I saw some products from Veganz lately in supermarkets with certified palm oil. I am not sure if I would go for that, because I do not know how processed they are. In my opinion best to avoid palm oil is the simple way: prepare your own meals.
    With cosmetics I have switched to brands I get from Alnatura and Denn’s. I have to check if palm oil is included to be honest, but if, it should be certified, right?

  2. I avoid palm oil in beauty products and skincare. With skincare I have zero tolerance policy but with makeup i think that some of the derivatives do slip in sometimes unfortunately due to all the “aliases”. ‘Vegetable oil’ can cover a multitude of sins…..

    On the health front, unrefined palm oil is actually pretty nutritious (I grew up with it in West Africa and still occassionally use – i always buy organic, sustainable, fair trade from small producers in Ghana, Nigeria or Ecuador) – it’s got similar properties to coconut oil but more Vitamin A – not to be confused with palm kernel oil which is not so great for health. However it is only the processed crap that is ever used in manufacturing so absolutely something to avoid on food labels. In ideal world I’d avoid any food with labels!

  3. The big one for me, and I have mentioned it before, is the use of PKE in the dairy industry. Fonterra says “PKE sold by Fonterra’s subsidiary RD1 is bought from INL, who import it from a single source, Wilmar International. Wilmar practices a “no burn” policy, respects designated conservation areas, employs wildlife protection experts, and is on target to complete RSPO certification audits for all their plantation operations by 2015. Wilmar recently announced that it no longer develops plantations on peat-land. ” However I do my best to buy milk from organic, non PKE sources when I can.

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