Palmed off?

C&I Issue 7, 2011

On the face of it, palm oil seems like an attractive crop. It can produce three to eight times more oil from a given land area than any other temperate or tropical oil crop. Both the seeds and fruit of the palm yield oil: triacylglycerols; it is the palm kernel oil that is mostly used in non-edible applications, such as detergents, cosmetics, plastics and surfactants.

palm printsBut while many in industry have suggested that increasing yields and profits from palm oil plantations cuts the pressure on land, others argue that palm oil production is harmful to the environment and threatens endangered animals, such as the orangutan and Sumatran tiger, which depend on forest habitats cleared for the plant’s cultivation.

Indeed, the oil palm has been viewed both as a valuable route to sustainable development and, more recently, as a ‘costly road to environmental ruin’, according to the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR). Timber extraction, plantations, fire destruction and peat land degradation in Indonesia represent the fourth largest contributor to overall greenhouse gases, according to the World Resources Institute.

Substitution or management?

Natural oils such as palm oil are increasingly used in cosmetics and toiletries, as formulators have turned in recent years to oleochemicals – chemicals derived from oils and fats that are analogous to petrochemicals – in a move towards natural ingredients.

Only food grade fatty acids, typically myristic, palmitic and stearic, are used to make cosmetic products, according to the American Palm Oil Council. These have a number of functions: from enriching lotions with vitamin E to moisturising and emollient effects on the skin. These versatile ingredients can be solvents for other ingredients, act as cleansing surfactants or condition the hair. Oleochemicals can be found in a wide range of cosmetics, from lotions and creams through to powders, lipsticks and hair dyes.

According to natural cosmetics and toiletries company Lush, the cosmetics sector currently uses roughly 6-7% of the world’s palm oil production and it is a major ingredient of many soaps. The company worked for almost a year in partnership with a leading UK soap-base manufacturer, Kay’s, to develop the world’s first commercially available palm-free soap base and states that it is willing to share its expertise with other soap manufacturers.

Lush North America has now switched all of its soap production to this new palm-free base  and the company says it is also using palm-free glycerin. The company's goal is to remove palm oil from its entire product range. ‘In replacing palm oil we are substituting other vegetable oils,’ says Lush’s global campaigns manager Andrew Butler: ‘There is no silver bullet, the key is diversification.’

Lush scientists have used sunflower, rapeseed and coconut oils in soap bases and glycerine. However, Butler acknowledges that if companies just switch all of their palm oil to one single other oil, it displaces the problem and puts another ecosystem under pressure. ‘Ideally we will be using an even greater diversity of oil, including things like olive and hemp,’ Butler continues. ‘Given the very great pressure currently exerted by the very nature of palm oil – very high yield, relatively cheap and only productive in tropical regions – and the fact that it is cultivated at breakneck speed in some of the most bio-diverse places on the planet, any move away from increasing demand for palm oil is a move in the right direction.’

Consumer giant Unilever has taken a different approach to the problem. The group uses 3% of the world’s palm oil across its portfolio in products ranging from margarine and ice cream to home and personal care products. But rather than avoiding palm oil, Unilever has pledged to source all of its palm oil from certified sustainable sources by 2015. In 2004, the company helped to establish the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) – an industry-led initiative set up in co-operation with the conservation organisation World Wildlife Fund (WWF) among others. RSPO brings together stakeholders from all sectors of the palm oil industry and aims to develop and implement global standards for sustainable palm oil.

‘At present all our businesses in Europe, the Americas and Australasia are using 100% sustainable palm oil,’ a Unilever spokesperson said. ‘We will continue to increase the amount of Certified Sustainable Palm Oil we buy until we meet our commitment of 100% by 2015.’

Sustainable sources

According to Butler, the biggest challenge is that many suppliers buy mixed vegetable oil and, at times, cannot say with any certainty exactly which oils are in the mix. Lush worked directly with a manufacturer to reformulate its soap base to Lush’s specifications. ‘That is because we can find smaller family run soap manufacturers to work with,’ Butler explains. He says that, by contrast, many large chemical companies that make surfactants are not willing to make bespoke products for a relatively small company like Lush. ‘What we need are other companies to demand guaranteed palm-free surfactants and acids,’ he says. ‘This sort of consolidated buying could pressure the ingredients manufacturers to make palm-free ingredients available.’

Unilever certainly aims to leverage its buying power to effect change. In 2009, it purchased 185,000t of certified sustainable palm oil in the form of Green Palm certificates, which accounted for 15% of its global need and more than 70% of all Green Palm certificates traded that year. Green Palm certificates support the production of sustainable palm oil certified to RSPO standards. Unilever followed up in 2010 with purchases of around 500,000t, representing more than a third of the company’s total requirements. Unilever also started buying quantities of segregated, ‘identity preserved’ palm oil in 2010. In 2011, the company plans to increase its certified sustainable palm oil purchase to over 800,000t.

‘The problem that the industry is facing is having a traceability system in place that guarantees that the certified sustainable palm oil is kept segregated from the non-sustainable until such time until all palm oil is sustainable,’ a Unilever spokesperson commented. ‘There isn’t currently enough demand for segregated sustainable palm oil to reduce segregation costs to acceptable levels within the industry.’ This means that only relatively small volumes can be guaranteed sustainable, through specialised distribution companies. As a result, Unilever is not able to source enough segregated certified sustainable palm oil to cover its requirements. However, the company recently reported that it has closed deals with suppliers to ship fully segregated palm oil to Europe and hopes others will follow this lead.

The public response

Consumer buying power is likely to be a deciding factor in how acceptable palm oil is as an ingredient in cosmetics and toiletries. ‘The public has become increasingly aware of the problems associated with palm oil, if not the specifics of deforestation, landgrabs, loss of biodiversity and high carbon emissions, then at least the top-line message that there is something problematic with palm oil,’ Butler says. Lush campaigns have focused on habitat threats to orang-utans from encroaching palm oil plantations, the social impacts on local inhabitants and the question of palm oil’s potential use in biofuels.

‘We make no secret of the fact that we use palm oil in our products and we label it where possible,’ says the Unilever spokesperson: ‘For instance, many of our personal care brands will have it labelled; and for our household care brands, it can be found on the list of ingredients we have on our website.’

According to figures quoted in a 2009 Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) report, The impacts and opportunities of oil palm in Southeast Asia: What do we know and what do we need to know?, several best practices to limit the environmental impacts of oil palm plantations and processing palm oil have been developed, but few independent assessments have been made of their application and effectiveness.

One of CIFOR’s recommendations is a call for more research into the extent to which the palm oil industry can effectively self-regulate through initiatives such as RSPO and the dangers of such initiatives being ‘hijacked by vested interests’. It would seem that for the time being, and despite considerable effort from various points along the supply chain, a guarantee of truly ethical and sustainable oils in cosmetics has yet to be fully realised.

Sustainable soya beans

Palm oil has garnered considerable media attention, but it is not the sole oil coming under scrutiny regarding its sustainability and use in cosmetics. The Round Table on Responsible Soy (RTRS) is an international multi-stakeholder initiative founded in 2006 that promotes responsible soya production through key stakeholders and through a global standard for responsible production. Media reports following its 2009 round table meeting suggested that no cosmetics companies attended discussions, even though rising soya bean use as an emollient in cosmetics contributed to the increasing global demand for soya bean oil. Many cosmetics companies have switched to oils such as soya in efforts to replace petroleum oil based formulations.

Encouraging better practices

As the palm oil industry moves towards production of certified sustainable palm oil, according to the standards set by the RSPO, smallholders face the risk of missing market opportunities if they do not improve production practices to meet the stringent certification requirements. This will be particularly challenging for independent smallholders, according to recent research commissioned by the World Bank.

The RSPO has tabled proposals to establish a fund to support smallholders through certification, which can be more of a challenge for this group due to limited funds. A market-driven initiative called the Palm Oil Support Initiative (POPSI) by Solaridad, WWF and the RSPO encourages organisations in the supply chain to support the overall goal to ‘add value to the oil palm supply chain by supporting oil palm smallholder and plantation workers in the palm oil sector worldwide to obtain RSPO certification’. POPSI’s target is train about 35,000 smallholders and farmer groups and raise the awareness of about 100,000 plantation workers on compliance of the RSPO principles and criteria in the major producing countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Humble beginnings: the Unilever history

James Welsh first took 32 barrels of palm oil to England in 1590. By the early 19th century, it was being used to make soap and candles, then later, for heating and cooking, and in many other products, including margarine. By 1930, oil palm was a significant factor in Margarine Unie, a Dutch margarine producer, merging with British soap company Lever Brothers to form Unilever. Today, Unilever is the second-largest consumer goods company in the world.

Helen Carmichael is a freelance science writer and editor based in Vancouver, Canada.

Further reading

1.The impacts and opportunities of oil palm in Southeast Asia. What do we know and what do we need to know? Sheil, D. et al, Published by Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), Bogor, Indonesia, 2009.

2. Key Sustainability Issues in the Palm Oil Sector. A Discussion Paper for Multi-Stakeholders Consultations, Cheng Hai Teoh, commissioned by the World Bank Group, 2010

3. American Palm Oil Council:

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