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Dr. Seuss and Palm Oil

April 8, 2012

We took the kids to see the Lorax at the local cinema tonight being as though it is Easter and we are a family  and as such work wasn’t exactly top of my ‘to do’ list but then the film started….. For those of you who haven’t read the now 40-year-old book or seen the film the Lorax is the spokesperson for the trees and this book tells the tale of Once-ler, a dreamer-turned-businessman and the affect that his amazing invention a ‘Thneeds’ (a multi-purpose must-have garment that sends the world into a purchasing frenzy) has on the local environment.   This sugar-coated tale of corporate greed  got me thinking about the cosmetics industry, as you do when you are a bit obsessed with all things work. I’m thinking Palm oil!

The similarities between the Dr Seuss story and the palm oil issue are striking in as much as our unquenchable thirst for stuff we want but don’t really need (cosmetics and  junk food)  is ripping out the very lungs of the world and leaving us in a place where we have to pay for things that should come naturally such as clean air and fresh water.

Just like Mr Once-ler the cosmetics industry is struggling with a supply and demand problem.  When demand outstrips supply a capitalist society rubs their hands together with glee and prepares to count the dollars and so it is not surprising that while the gap can be filled it will be.  However, that gap is currently being filled at the expense of our beautiful earth, ancient trees are being felled, animals are suffering and people are being turfed off their land in favour of bigger, better and bolder mechanical processes.  Piece by piece, bit by bit we are finding ourselves moving into ‘Thneed-ville” – the nightmarish town in the Lorax film where everything, including the trees are made of plastic and controlled ‘for profit’.

So why do I keep going on about NOT boycotting palm oil then?  If you haven’t read my rants before then you might like to get up to speed here or here or maybe here.

The answer is simple.  When faced with a supply and demand problem such as this there are two ethical solutions that can be implemented either together or separately depending on the wider market dynamics.  First you can forget ‘commoditising’ your product and make it a luxury good-by limiting its distribution and increasing the price – not very equitable maybe but it certainly would lessen the strain on the worlds resources.  Secondly you can try to either keep up with or at least maintain a high level of supply by doing things smarter – in this case it could be producing higher yielding crops, improving farming processes,  improving the down-stream manufacturing yields and even producing products that are more effective or even multi-functional.

Whichever path is taken Palm oil makes sense as it is the most economical of all suitable crops in terms of yield, water and soil requirements, ease of processing and quality of oil.  Boycotting it misses the point unless you are opting not to replace it with anything (an irony that seems to be lost on many cosmetic brands).

We need to get back to what the Lorox said to Mr Once-ler when his business started to take off. He asked the following question:  “How does a tree fall” to which the answer was and still is “it falls the way that it leans”.   The moral of the story is simple. Be mindful of which way you lean because it could be your undoing. Mr Once-ler chose profit and world-domination with single-minded determination and when the feedstock dried up so did the profit.   We, as humans have a responsibility to lean in towards the earth and listen to what it tells us.  The Lorax showed us how to prosper with the planet and it is time to listen.

However hard it gets, however dirty it looks, boycotting palm oil is not the answer so lets put some more of that time, money and passion into habit changing (using less, valuing more), government lobbying (to protect and preserve our wild and diverse earth) and producing good, efficient, renewable chemistry that allows us all to enjoy a bit of guilt-free personal grooming.

Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.

So let’s focus on the real problem and not get caught up in the fluffy cuteness of it all.  Please.

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