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Why Boycott Palm Oil – A facebook frenzy

July 18, 2013

When I wrote this on Facebook I got quite a mouthful of abuse and while I can definitely see why some people took immediate offence (my post was a bit of an emotional rant based on experiences that I’d had over the past few weeks which I failed to mention) I was rather surprised that some took this to mean that I didn’t give a damn about the environment and that I was better off rotting in hell but rather than do that I decided to do what I hope many of those haters will do and give Palm Oil a little bit more of my thinking time. 

Forest Malaysia

So, here is the original post and after that is the long-hand thinking that went on behind the scenes and continues to go on inside my brand.

I am always willing to re-evaluate my thoughts, learn and grow while respecting the mantra – listen first then seek to understand. 

Why boycott palm? I can’t help but get agitated when I hear people opting for palm free cosmetics and while I understand the emotional trauma of the sometimes cute, mainly horrific images of Orang Utans suffering, forest burning and other atrocities if it wasn’t for palm we would be in a far worse state! * Palm is a hugely productive crop compared to others we use in cosmetic. Boycotting palm, while changing nothing else about your cosmetic life is worse than useless. You are using more resources than necessary and potentially contributing to more loss of habitat elsewhere on the planet. * Around 80% of palm goes into food and a good proportion of that is fast food. The best thing you can do to reduce your impact on the Orang Utans is to stop eating mass-produced chocolate, biscuits, cakes, snack foods etc.

And no, I’m not sponsored by the Malaysian palm board. I’m just passionate about this planet I call home.

While I stand by what was said including the sentiment that went behind it but do admit that I perhaps chose my social media outlet poorly and therefore enabled myself to be mis-construed, re-framed and pitched in a way that led people  into thinking that I was somehow attacking their core belief about sustainability and natural resources. Don’t get me wrong, I am not trying to appease the haters by any means, what I am doing is allowing my thoughts to take form through writing, processing my mistake (at posting this on Facebook in this manner) and basically re-evaluating my approach to communicating about this issue.

So if you are at all interested in the bones of this thing here they are.

My opening sentence poured out some deep-set personal emotion – never great for business but in this case I felt it was about time it was discussed. I am a cosmetic chemist for hire, I work with brands that are certified Organic those looking to be ‘natural’ or ‘green’ and brands whose primary focus is on a specific performance criteria, price point or skin feels etc.  It takes all sorts and my job is to offer solutions that tick their boxes while being as resource-smart as I can make them.

I make no apology for the fact that I do feel strongly moved when presented by a member of the public, a brand or a potential brand owner to make them a product without palm because palm oil is destroying the rain forests. 

Palm oil is not destroying the rain forest, people are.

What is destroying the rain forests and indeed any land that we have is greed, commercialism and this thing that we like to call ‘progress.’ That has been ‘progressing’ since way before my birth – in fact around my birth the Club of Rome met and published a fantastic essay called ‘limits to growth’ that set a framework for much of the environmental thinking that has occurred during my lifetime. It came to a number of conclusions not least that we use our limited resources more quickly than they can be replenished and as the worlds’ population grows and becomes financially richer the burden on our planet will grow.

Forest malaysia 2

I was born in the United Kingdom in an area that ‘was all fields when I was a lad’. It isn’t now.  Before it was all fields it was all forest.

I moved to Australia, a land that is vast, clean and under-populated compared with much of the world. I settled amongst the trees in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney.  I delighted at the fact that it only took me an hour to get into the city to work, an hour on a highway that was built where there were once fields, where before there were fields there were vast open plains.  Where those plains supported Emus, kangaroos, Wallaby, Indigenous elders with the Earth’s knowledge knitted into their bones.

I continue to enjoy in the fact that my garden backs onto national park without batting an eyelid that this was all possible because white men came and beat a trail right past my door.

I am no better than them. I am one of them.  Maybe we all are……

I also admit that I have enjoyed the fact that I can dial in dinner, that I can buy packet food – biscuits, cakes, sweets, chocolate.  I can indulge in calories that are vacuous yet addictive, fattening yet mal-nourishing.  I don’t enjoy that so much now, it turns my stomach in ways that I would never have dreamed possible until now, seeing what I see, knowing what I know.  But still I indulge from time to time, indulge my kids, my friends and family, my own selfish heart.   Maybe we all do……

And so to palm.

Whatever we feel in reading this, how easy do you think it would be to explain to a young child living in Malaysia or Indonesia that they aren’t entitled to any of the things that we take for granted – good road networks, broadband,  commercial farming, manufacturing, consumerism and on and on because  we ruined the world for them? We took too much, were too greedy and too rough with nature. We tried to beat back nature, tame it, squash it, conquer it. We didn’t understand, didn’t value enough, didn’t take the time to listen or stop.  As a westerner I can choose to now go back to the wilderness, to surrender worldly goods and listen to my inner spirit.  I can choose to live simply, freely and unencumbered by this thing called ‘progress’ but hang on, can I?  Will I ever know what that feels like?  This doesn’t make it right but neither does it make it right for us to judge the choices of others.

palm hand

I’m in Malaysia now and spent time with a local from the Cameron Highlands who bemoaned the changes that he’d seen over his lifetime. He was in his early 60’s.  Born there to immigrant parents he had grown up in a tribal community surrounded by virgin rain forest.  The road on which we travelled was built only 15 years ago and cut straight through that land and while it was beautiful to see the forest so close to the highway I felt sickened by the impact this would have had on the native wildlife and local tribes.  Further along my driver pointed out a settlement – a government initiative to give tribal communities a ‘better life’ by housing them, giving them access to electricity and other services.  This I found sad, especially given the fact that I live in a land of disenfranchised souls.  But then again don’t we all…..

And so my question remains – why boycott palm oil?

What I was reacting to was the fact that the phrase ‘palm oil’ has become synonymous with the message that we can carry on almost as blindly as before as long as we keep hating the bad guys – palm and palm farmers – serial killers, land rapists backed by money hungry governments with short-term plans and so on and so forth. It makes sense, we see pictures, we know that money is involved, money and power corrupt, we can visit these places and see with our own eyes the logging trains, the raped land, the displacement and the scars.  It feels right for palm oil to be wrong.

But that is missing the point and we can’t afford to miss the point for much longer if we want to help ‘save’ this planet that we so happily call home.

The issue is land management. 

Calling this a ‘palm’ problem damages the argument and vilifies a crop that could assist us in greening our future probably more than any other botanical.  Why are we not protesting about land management?   Why, maybe because it sounds far too political, deep and involved. Palm oil, palm trees,  tortured Orang Utans they play on our emotions and that is good for raising money but not good for raising the status of a critically important issue. Especially not when as I found out with this Facebook post not everyone reads on, finds out what the bones of the issue are, makes moves that will make real change possible.  We are all too good at emotional knee jerking, we suck at thinking slowly.

If anyone thinks that the only issue in the rainforest belt is palm farming then they are having a laugh.  Palm may be the headline grabber but what about the hotels, the golf courses, the mineral processing, the new roads, the homing of growing populations, the manufacturing, the urbanisation of a generation.  What good comes of calling this the ‘palm issue’?

Am I being pedantic?

 But does it really matter as long as the right people get our cash?  Won’t they play the big game for us and sort it all out?  Maybe yes, maybe they will and maybe that is where I fall flat on my cynical face but I can’t help but feel that no, the tree is not for barking up, our attention has been diverted for just long enough so that the real problems go un-noticed.  Meanwhile ethical companies and families who grow, supply or use sustainably produced palm start with start to wonder if they should even bother when everyone now wants soy, hemp or canola crops that ultimately require more land and resources to grow, crop and supply.

Effective Action.

A better place to start in my opinion is from a place of acceptance of what palm is and what palm is not. Palm being a vegetable based crop requires land on which to grow.  Palm being a very high yielding crop that lives and produces for many years requires less land than say soy hemp or cotton to do that growing. Less land is good as it is LAND that is the issue. Well, land and air and water and soil if you want to full picture.  Luckily palm can grow in many countries all over the world, not just in Malaysia and Indonesia. I have heard of successful palm plantations in South America and Africa and I am sure that more exist out there – in my opinion we need to be encouraging MORE palm plantations just not in the rainforest, definitely not there.

I think that the other helpful thing here would be to find a way of discussing the palm supply chain in a less emotive and more productive way, separating the very real, tragic and heart-string pulling disaster that is the displacement and loss of flora and fauna and concentrating on the global future and opportunities for this crop.  Yes of course the two things are entwined as with all farming but each side of the issue needs space, resources and energy.

So am I still agitated by people wanting ‘palm free’?

Reading this over again and thinking through all that I have learned over the last few weeks has enabled me to clarify my thoughts, control my emotions surrounding people’s requests/ responses about palm and move to a more productive mindset.  I haven’t changed my mind about palm being part of our cosmetic future and do still sigh a little when I am asked to formulate something without palm ‘because everyone is doing that’ or ‘because palm is really bad for the environment’ or ‘because palm is destroying the rainforest’ for reasons I’ve already discussed.  However, I do support informed choice, can sympathise with and support those who simply can’t face using a palm oil product because of the current situation in South East Asia.  I understand that many people who have made that choice have researched heavily and understand all sides of the argument and for that reason I can concede that my initial agitation was probably best processed away from my Facebook page.   But that didn’t happen and I’m actually thankful for that.

Boycotting Palm oil containing cosmetics is nowhere near enough to save the rain forests or any other part of our environment without it being backed up by some additional lifestyle changes and a little attention to what is happening outside of planet ‘consumer goods’.

I am sorry if I offended anyone with my Facebook post or subsequently with this post. That wasn’t my intention at all but I do realise that while I can re-think my thoughts I can’t re-think yours.  And neither do I want to.

Thank you.


10 Comments leave one →
  1. July 18, 2013 9:14 am

    Hi Amanda,
    I can see your heart and soul poured into this epic blog post. We all love nature and have to be realistic about change – sustainability is a fine balance.
    Social media can be a double edged sword – at least you know people are reading your posts!
    I think you are very fair minded and being a cosmetic chemist (very science based) as well as having the passion you have, certainly pulls you in opposite directions.
    Well written!

    • RealizeBeautyEd permalink
      July 18, 2013 10:32 am

      Thanks Karen! It has been a great experience all round in terms of giving me a chance to really go back and evaluate the issue afresh, find out what triggers others and look again at how we might move forward as individuals and an industry.

  2. July 18, 2013 10:31 am

    Thanks for another informative, reflective post Amanda. I’ve taught environmental education at masters level and now find it part of my role as a soap maker to offer an insight into a complex issue. Like you, I’ve seen a fixation on the boycotting of palm oil that is not informed by a strong understanding of the micro economic issues, development and sustainability issues nor the notion that if the use of palm oil ends it must be replaced by another oil ….that isn’t genetically modified, that doesn’t cause deforestation, that stimulates the economy of developing countries, that doesn’t require chemicals that threaten insects, flora and fauna. Hmmm. If there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that very little in this world is black and white – issues are multi layered, complex and pose tough ethical dilemmas which we should seek to wrestle with at a deep level.

    • RealizeBeautyEd permalink
      July 18, 2013 11:16 pm

      Thanks Melissa,
      I’d love to talk more to you as it would be good to get a wider perspective on this issue and find out how other manufacturers and brand owners are dealing with this and why. Let me know if you are happy to talk some more.

  3. Jane permalink
    July 18, 2013 12:24 pm

    Three cheers from a slow thinker! You have also confirmed my opinion of Facebook.

    • RealizeBeautyEd permalink
      July 18, 2013 11:15 pm

      Thanks for the feedback Jane and with regards to facebook I think that any communication channel can be misconstrued so I’ll take it for what it is and move on.

  4. July 20, 2013 8:34 am

    We use palm in soap and find it to be a very nuanced issue that raises passionate responses. You have a great point about boycotting in food and I think it is something that everyone should take into consideration.

    • RealizeBeautyEd permalink
      July 22, 2013 11:32 am

      It is a tricky situation as all of us in the cosmetics industry are making non-essential goods for the most part and so any ingredients we use should be chosen wisely and used carefully. However, the majority of people still enjoy using and sharing the products we all make, they help build self-esteem and form part of many rituals – spiritual, fun and functional and as such I feel that the industry is still of value. That is why I am still pro-palm oil as a crop as I am yet to find a more useful species for our needs. I just think that we all have to be mindful of what we make and insure it is the best that it can be!
      Food is a bigger problem as far as I can see because we use more per capita than we do of cosmetics and much of the food we eat in the west is vacuous calories that contribute nothing to our health, well-being or sense of beauty. This in turn leads us to feel sad and buy MORE cosmetics. Maybe if we ditched the junk food and cooked fresh and simply we would feel more naturally beautiful both inside and out and would need less artificial help. I’m all for that!

  5. July 23, 2013 1:44 pm

    Thank you for your informative post. I am a soap maker and, after much deliberation, decided to make my soap palm free. Anne-Marie above is the provider of nearly all my soap supplies through her store and she has written an article very similar to yours, making many of the same points and others as well. Anne-Marie’s products are from sustainable sources.

    I do realize that my tiny soap company wouldn’t use enough palm to make any real difference and that the vast majority of palm is used in processed food (which we avoid), but felt that any reduction in demand would be helpful. On the other hand, if we all insisted on purchasing from sustainable sources, unethical producers would eventually feel the pain in their wallets.

    Having lived in Africa, I know the poverty that a thriving crop can alleviate and thinking my decision might affect farmers struggling to survive is

    I’m still conflicted with my decision and may change my mind in the future. As I’m sure you know, palm oil is loaded with stearic acid, which produces a harder, more durable bar of soap. As you stated, adding a different oil as a replacement for the palm may be a case of the cure being worse than the disease.

    • RealizeBeautyEd permalink
      July 23, 2013 2:09 pm

      You know that one thing I haven’t put in here is that as humans Eutopia is just not possible as our reach is too far. There are costs to every decision we make but I guess that the tipping point has to be when the costs outweigh the benefits – not to our wallet or ego but to the world as a whole. A very tricky thing to master.
      When I was out walking yesterday I noticed how pathetically ill-equipt we are as a species to the cold and dirt. Most animals self-groom whereas we need help in the form of water and often soap or something. I don’t see my guinea pigs rushing for a bar of suds and least still the gleaming white Cockatoo’s that play in my garden. Also we feel the cold, get sun-burned easily and can’t stomach unclean water in the way that other animals can and need to grow or rob materials from external sources. We are just not self-sufficient which ever way you look at it. I think that it would help if we get over that and focus on the one strength that we do have which is our huge and adaptable brains that are capable of thinking outside of ourselves and acting on a global level. Maybe then we will see the path more clearly even if it is a twisting and turning one. Thanks for the comment and good luck with your decision making.

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