Dygo products have always been and probably will be palm oil free. Why? In this post I would like to share my thoughts, research and facts about palm oil, its shady industry and its labelling in cosmetics products.
First, what is palm oil and why is it ”bad”?
Palm oil in itself is not harmful or “bad”, it is actually more healthy and more sustainable than many saturated animal fats. How it is produced, and the massive demand for it, are a problem.
Palm oil is extracted from the fruit flesh and kernels of the oil palm (Elaeis guineensis), a plant native to West Africa. It has been used for centuries as cooking oil in its native countries, then later also as a lubricant for machines in the industrial revolution in Britain. The oil palm is very productive per unit of land, much more than any other oil crop, and can be harvested all year round. For these reasons it is very cheap and in principle it could be a very sustainable way of producing high quality fat.
The problem is that a sharply rising demand has caused a very fast increase in production especially in Malaysia and Indonesia, where palm oil monocultures have caused deforestation through “slash and burn”, causing biodiversity loss and huge CO2 emissions through fires and destruction of the peatlands, in many cases expanding plantations against the will of local people, or by convincing them to work in plantations with promises of quick cash. Let’s see what are the reasons behind this huge demand.
In the 90’s European countries started to think how to reduce the carbon emissions from transportation and introduced biofuels. For example, in 2018 almost two-thirds of the palm oil imported into the EU was burned for energy, mostly as biodiesel for cars and trucks. Just in 2019 the EU decided to stop subsidizing palm oil from 2020 and to phase it out by 2030, because the environmental damage and emissions caused by plantations in south-east Asia make it worse than burning fossil fuel. Moreover, there are concerns that biofuel crops take away the land which could be used to grow food.
Palm oil is cheap, really too cheap, that is why you can find it pretty much in every single processed product at the store (50% of products at any food store contain palm oil): biscuits, shampoo, soaps, detergents, cleaning products and so on… The list is without end. Especially in plant based foods and beauty products you can find palm oil and its derivatives as it is a great substitute for animal fat (it is healthier than butter). Since 2014, EU laws require all food labels to clearly state if they contain palm oil, while before you could often find names like “vegetable oil” hiding the presence of palm oil. Sadly, that does not apply to cosmetic or household cleaning products (the latter do not even have an ingredient list). There are hundreds of names of palm oil derived ingredients which we can often see in cosmetic products. So it is very easy to get lost. To make it easier you can memorize building words: PALM-, STEAR-, LAUR-, GLYC-. Ingredients starting with one of these prefixes might be produced from palm oil.
Here is a list of the names of ingredients mostly used to describe compounds derived from palm oil:
Vegetable Oil, Vegetable Fat, Palm Kernel, Palm Kernel Oil, Palm Fruit Oil, Palmate, Palmitate, Palmolein, Glyceryl, Stearate, Stearic Acid, Elaeis Guineensis, Palmitic Acid, Palm Stearine, Palmitoyl Oxostearamide, Palmitoyl Tetrapeptide-3, Sodium Laureth Sulfate, Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, Sodium Kernelate, Sodium Palm Kernelate, Sodium Lauryl Lactylate/Sulphate, Hyrated Palm Glycerides, Etyl Palmitate, Octyl Palmitate, Palmityl Alcohol
As a cosmetic maker, sometimes I have a hard time making sure that the ingredients I want to buy don't contain palm oil. Thanks to the hard work of activists and journalists, palm oil started to have a negative image. That is why I often see in the ingredients’ description, vegetable fat rather than clearly stating palm oil. We as makers have to do deep digging sometimes to make sure that we do not get tricked by lack of information. For example, the very common ingredient Cetearyl Alcohol is almost certainly derived from palm oil but usually not stated as such.
But can palm oil be produced ethically and sustainably?
Probably most of you hear and see that some products have a label of RSPO “the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil” organisation, which in theory was founded to start better cultivation practices, protecting the remaining rainforest and people who work for this industry. But in reality, RSPO-labelled palm oil is still far from actually being “sustainable”. In various documentaries I have seen that mills selling certified palm oil receive oil palm fruits whose origin is not checked at all, and farmers who are in the list of certified zones aren't given any improvement of their working conditions or even trained on what is sustainable palm oil cultivation. Of course, it is a step forward, but since it has been founded by the industry itself, most often it sounds like green washing to me. Of course there are also other organisations who try to promote good cultivation practices, socially and environmentally responsible, such as “Palm done right”, fair trade and organic palm oil which doesn’t come from monocultures in Indonesia or Malaysia. But when looking for palm oil derived ingredients, such a cetearyl alcohol for example, it is really hard to track if it is really coming from such plantations.
That brings me to why I have chosen to strictly exclude palm oil from my products and to avoid it in my personal purchases, even though sometimes it could be much easier and cheaper. The demand is the problem! WWF has been urging: do not boycott palm oil, because producing the oil from other crops would use much more land and because small farmers will lose their jobs. I do not buy these statements: first, other cheap oil crops such as soy and sunflower, unlike tropical crops, can grow also in temperate regions so their impact on tropical deforestation would be much lower; second, I do not think that these jobs in palm oil plantations, which are harmful to your environment and health, and still cannot provide a decent living, are worth being saved.
Rather than fueling the palm oil industry, which is run by a dozen giants who do not care about anything else but a quick profit, I think we should concentrate on campaigning with the goal of reducing the demand, supporting reforestation projects and helping people to switch to more “sustainable” farming activities. The biggest demand for cheap products comes from us in the “western” world. We should try to avoid cheap palm oil where possible, so there is no need to cut or burn more forest for palm oil trees! And even more importantly, we should try to buy less unnecessary stuff, otherwise the big industry will just switch from palm oil to another cheap and destructive crop.
I would also like to remind you that palm oil production is just one of the drivers of destruction of natural habitats. A probably much bigger driver is animal agriculture which causes massive deforestation mainly for beef pasture and for monocultures like soy (and again palm oil) which are exported also to Europe and North America to feed intensively farmed animals. Avoiding animal products is also very important to try to stop the destruction of the richest ecosystems on Earth.
P.S. I have to say that sometimes word sustain really annoys me, because in most cases we really need to regenerate rather than to keep sustaining our madness! Don't you think that “sustainability” became an easy word to make everything sound green and positive, but hiding big business’s wish to keep the destruction-fed profit machine going at the same fast pace?
This post is my personal opinion, based on the research I have done and the documentaries I have seen. You are welcome to have different opinions!
Photos are from my personal album from Indonesia 2015/2016 and Sengsavane Chounramany.