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Palm Oil and Conscious Consumerism

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Palm oil is such a commonly used ingredient in so many products that those of us living in consumer societies find it almost impossible to avoid. From toothpaste to cosmetics to pet food to the fuel that runs your car and powers the device you’re reading this on, palm oil seems to be in everything. 

Its ubiquity is due to its many versatile properties, which when coupled with very high demand and a relatively low cost of production make it difficult to replace. 

In the skin care industry, palm oil is used often for its texture and stability. It is rich in fatty acids, giving it a smooth texture and enhancing the stability of creams, lotions, and moisturizers. It is found often in the following:

  • Shampoo and conditioner
  • Makeup such as mascara, foundation, concealer, lipstick, pressed eyeshadows, and eye pencils
  • Skin care
  • Perfume
  • Sunscreen
  • Facial wipes
  • Toothpaste
  • Soap and laundry detergent
  • Foods
  • Biofuel

When used in beauty products, palm oil might also be a listed ingredient as: ethyl palmitate, glyceryl stearate, hydrogenated palm glycerides, palmitate (and any variation of palmitate), sodium lauryl/laureth sulfate, and stearic acid.

But the use of palm oil is under scrutiny for the following reasons:

Environmental Impact: Palm oil plantations have been a driving force behind deforestation, leading to the destruction of precious rainforests and biodiversity. The loss of habitat for endangered species, such as orangutans and tigers are devastating and raise concerns about long-term ecological consequences. Additionally, the clearing of land through burning contributes significantly to air pollution and climate change.

Human Rights Violations: The palm oil industry has been linked to numerous human rights abuses, including forced labor, child labor, and unsafe working conditions. Many workers in palm oil plantations face exploitation and are denied fair wages, proper living conditions, and the right to organize. Understanding the human cost of palm oil production is crucial in fostering ethical consumer choices.

Indigenous Communities and Land Rights: Indigenous communities often bear the brunt of palm oil expansion, facing displacement and loss of ancestral lands. The violation of their rights and traditions disrupts their way of life and undermines the cultural diversity that should be preserved. Examining the impact on indigenous communities is essential to addressing the broader implications of palm oil cultivation.

This is dystopian, depressing stuff. So what can be done? 

To start with, be conscientious about your consumption. Before you click “BUY” or toss that new product in your basket, ask whether you actually need and will use it. If you’re not sure, the answer is probably no. If it’s yes, consider products made by companies who are adopting sustainable and ethical sourcing practices. Look for products labeled with certifications such as RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) or choose brands that are committed to using responsibly sourced palm oil or alternative ingredients.

Unfortunately, finding alternatives to palm oil is not simple or straightforward. Substitutes could cause the same or greater damage to delicate habitats, and more of a replacement product may be needed to create the same effect. But there are some very interesting efforts with tobacco, sorghum, yeast and algae that show potential. 

As conscious consumers, being aware of the impact of palm oil helps us make informed choices and inspires us to continue learning about the impacts of our buying habits. So don’t decide your efforts don’t matter, or lose hope. According to Frank Swain of the BBC “The scientific potential is there to mediate our impact on the world by developing more sustainable ways to meet our food, fuel and cosmetic needs. All that’s required is the will to make that change happen – and for that will to become as ubiquitous as palm oil itself.”

Photo by pure julia on Unsplash


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