Special Focus: Palm Oil

The guide on how to get palm oil right

By Simon Pitman

- Last updated on GMT

The guide on how to get palm oil right

Related tags Palm oil

Palm oil is an essential ingredient for cosmetics and personal care players, and if it’s sourced sustainably, it’s hard to beat both in terms of carbon footprint and efficacy.

But not doing your homework can get you in to a lot of trouble, especially if the palm oil being used can be traced to the destruction of forests that sustain endangered species or cause environmental pollution.

And as consumers are coming to take sustainability and eco-friendly practices as a given, they too are increasingly doing their homework to ensure manufacturers are giving them the type of cosmetic and personal care products that are good for them and the environment.

Consumers vote with their feet

Now, when it comes to palm oil, this growing band of ethical and right-minded consumers are aware of the environmental hazards and threat to wild life that palm oil farming can cause, so if they get wind of the fact that the shampoo or shower gel they have been buying is not from the right sources, they can and will switch products.

Environmental groups such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth have led the way in raising awareness about the potentially devastating effects of palm oil farming, and this has led to some affirmative action by the big personal care players and palm oil suppliers to ensure things are done right. But some of those actions have come under scrutiny.

The biggest impact on the industry has come from an organisation known as the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).

Established in 2004, it now counts more than 2,000 members from 75 countries and has set the bar for sustainable, eco-friendly palm oil sourcing through its RSPO certification process, established to ensure that the cultivation and processing of palm oil is sustainable and minimises the impact on the environment.

Although the intentions were undoubtedly good, the RSPO has come under criticism from environmental bodies because the destruction of rain forests to meet increased demand for palm oil has continued to grow.

Go see the palm oil plantations for yourself

So how do you know the palm oil supplier you are using is abiding by their claims on sustainability? For one supplier the answer was to get on a plane and go see for herself.

Cosmetics Design caught up with Gay Timmons, founder of Oh Oh Organics earlier this year, and she explained in a video interview how she found a supplier in Ecuador that met her strict criteria on sustainability​.

It is also interesting to note Timmons comments about the high yield of palm oil crops, and the fact that it beats other vegetable oils alternatives by a long way with respect to the carbon footprint for the whole production process.

All about traceability

But not everyone can hop on a plane and go see the plantations for themselves, which is why the proving traceability and sustainability claims is now so important.

In line with this, one of the world’s biggest palm oil suppliers, Golden Agri-Resources, recently committed to full traceability throughout its entire supply chain during the course of the next four years​.

The company says that it is now committed to transparency for its supply chain of seven million tons of palm oil, tracing its product back through 489 mills to the point of origin.

Targeting the small- to medium players

But it is not just the big palm oil players that are culpable, environmental groups have also pointed the finger at smaller producers, who are said to produce around 40% of the world’s palm oil, but often fly under the radar when it comes to accountability and traceability.

In response to this problem, this month Henkel and BASF announced a collaboration with a development organisation aimed at supporting smaller- and medium-sized palm oil producers​ by making them both more efficient and sustainable.

The collaboration aims to make the farmers’ endeavours more eco-friendly, while crucially helping to be boost their often razor tight profit margins.

Despite efforts, big players still rate poorly

Earlier this year Greenpeace released a report scoring many of the world’s biggest multinational players unfavourably for their palm oil supply chain practices​.

The report rated 14 of the biggest FMCGs players in world, and gave poor assessments to P&G, Unilever, Colgate-Palmolive and Johnson & Johnson.

“None of the companies we surveyed are able to say with any certainty that there is no deforestation in their palm oil supply chain,” ​states the report, titled Cutting Deforestation out of the Palm Oil Supply Chain. And, in fact, “most companies are unable even to say how much of their palm oil comes from suppliers that comply with their own sourcing standards.”

Does palm oil now have a bad name?

Interestingly it was this year’s in-cosmetics event in Paris that brought to light the fact that many ingredients suppliers are now flagging up “palml-free” claims as a big selling point​.

Indeed, companies such as US-based Inolex are jumping on this opportunity by providing a portfolio of “palm-free” products as viable eco-friendly alternatives to palm oil.

Many such alternatives are being sold on the basis of being environmentally-friendly, but a good question to ask is whether or not they can match palm oil’s hard-to-beat yield statistics, as the more land that is required to farm the same volumes, the higher the overall environmental footprint.

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