We all saw the advert despite it being banned. As part of its Christmas campaign, supermarket Iceland teamed up with Greenpeace to produce an animated short film featuring an orangutan about the deforestation committed by palm-oil growers. The video has been shared over 19 million times on Twitter alone and it’s resulted in calls for palm oil to be banned in food and cosmetics. But how bad is palm oil for the environment? How is palm oil used in cosmetics? And what can be done about it?

Why Is Palm Oil Used?

Palm oil is an edible vegetable oil that’s extracted on a large scale from the fruit grown on the African oil palm tree. Around the world, palm oil consumption is increasing, both in food and in cosmetics, and can be found in products such as bread, ice cream, and virtually every processed foods. It’s also used in some cosmetics such as makeup and soap. But why is it used so much?

Simply put, it makes sense to. Not only is palm oil extremely versatile, it’s also is one of the least expensive and most efficient oils to produce. That’s why it accounts for approximately one-third of all global plant oil production.

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According to Estée Lauder Companies, who promote the ‘responsible sourcing of palm oil’, palm oil is very popular in cosmetics for a number of reasons:

  • It remains stable at high temperatures
  • It has a smooth and creamy texture and it does not smell
  • It has a natural preservative effect which extends the shelf life of products
  • The oil is a great source of tocotrienols too, a form of vitamin E which is linked to lower risk of heart disease and cancer. It’s also rich in other antioxidants, such as vitamin A which has been proven to protect skin cells and improve overall health.

    Is Palm Oil Bad for the Environment?

    This is where palm oil get controversial. As it’s used so widely, to keep up with increasing demand palm oil is mass produced on an unimaginable scale all around the globe; especially in countries with large tropical rainforests – notably in Asia and South America.

    This is where the problems arise. According to the WWF, palm oil production “threatens some of the planet’s most important and sensitive habitats.” The uncontrolled clearing of rainforests for conventional palm oil plantations has led to widespread deforestation. This has resulting in the destruction of habitats for endangered species, including orangutans, tigers, elephants and rhinos.

    According to some research, the production of the likes of palm oil has led to the death of an estimated 100,000 orangutans.

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    Should We Be Using Palm Oil in Cosmetics?

    While the cosmetic industry has undoubtedly played a part in the mass production of palm oil (and therefore the environmental controversies), the personal care products industry represents less than 1% of global palm oil usage.

    Not only that, global deforestation issues are far more associated with Timber Production and the biggest culprit, Agricultural Farming. In Latin America alone, 2.71 million hectares of tropical forest is cleared each year to make way for cattle ranches – five times more than any other industry in the region.

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    Replacing palm oil with other vegetable oil alternatives isn’t viable either. Palm oil production is actually one of the most efficient oil productions on the planet, yielding four-ten times more oil per unit of land than alternatives such as rapeseed or soybeans. Therefore using alternatives would more than likely lead to even greater deforestation. They also require far less pesticides and fertilisers.

    Another problem is that the product is so widely used and engrained in the global market that palm oil producing communities in the likes of Indonesia and Malaysia depend on the work.

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    How Can I Change the Palm Oil Industry?

    It seems to us the only way to make a real difference in the industry is to start using less palm oil. The less you use, the less it will be produced. In general, the more processed the food, the more likely it contains palm oil. Buy fresh and cook from scratch.

    In cosmetics, many brands have joined forces with the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). They’ve developed a set of environmental and social criteria which companies comply with in order to produce Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO). When they are properly applied, these criteria can help to minimise the negative impact of palm oil cultivation on the environment and communities in palm oil-producing regions.

    So if you want to make a difference, keep a look out for products which don the CSPO label.

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