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The Problem with being Palm Free

April 24, 2018

Here’s the thing,  You look around for ingredients that are being sold as palm free, I’m not talking your Shea butter or coconut water, I’m talking the stuff that will hold your emulsion together, stop it growing microbes and make your essential oil disappear stuff.  The nuts and bolts so to speak.  So, you gather your palm-free tools and formulate a product.  It works out well so you launch it.

palm free Dr Straetmans

A year or so goes by and then, Lo-and-behold you find out that one of the ‘palm free’ ingredients you have in your formula is no longer palm free.  This sucks for you but not only is it a big headache, if you have been dealt that killer blow by a competitor or customer ‘hey brand x, I was wondering if your Y is palm free and think you should check’, it could also damage your reputation.

Now some of you might be thinking ‘fair enough, should have done your research’ and I’d want to whack you but that would not be very politically correct.

Welcome to the world of ‘Palm Free’.

To create a palm free range today is easier than it was a year ago but nowhere near as easy as it might be in the future.  Right about now we have several ingredient manufacturers marketing ingredients as palm free which is great (if that’s what you are looking for) but these ingredient ranges are usually small and may not meet your requirements.   Formulators and brand owners do typically do their research on ingredients and will ask for manufacturing flow charts for their natural and synthetic inputs to ensure they meet their brand requirements but what happens when the manufacturer changes the goalposts?  That seems to be happening in the palm free world.

Most decent sized ingredient manufacturers have some relationship with palm oil so, they would rather manufacture with that than anything else (cheaper, more reliable supply, easier to work with, better fatty acid composition etc). However, when the RSPO (Round Table for Sustainable Palm Oil) came in for a hammering over the last few years  for its apparent lack of action in protecting and preserving virgin forest some ingredient companies started to offer palm free ingredients to capitalise on the move to palm free. Fast forward to today though and after a sustaining a severe bruising of their egos and reputation the RSPO is starting to pull up its socks, at least in part.   Fully traced and mass balance palm oil is now available which means that for a bit of extra money palm oil feedstock buyers can get their palm fix AND answer those pesky environmentalist questions in the affirmative ‘yes madam, I am not being an environmental vandal and here’s my certificate’ etc.  Of the two, fully traceable is ideal but mass balanced (where you pay a premium for sustainable oil and thus encourage the market to produce more) is more widely available and is what most ingredient manufacturers are opting to support.

This change has shifted the sands of ingredient supply again and now we are seeing a rise in ingredients sold as ‘mass balance palm’ or ‘RSPO sustainable’ or whatever wording they are entitled to – you get the picture.   While this all sounds jolly good it isn’t necessarily so as I’ll explain.

As ingredient suppliers are now able (in some cases) to provide ‘good’ palm, normal palm and synthetic ingredient options (the usual three) there is less perceived need to offer palm free.  For the small niche clients that want palm free they are now going to be less likely to benefit price and availability wise for these palm free options  as the mass market take the position that now everything is fine we don’t need to avoid palm.  On top of that you have a situation where companies who were buying an ingredient as palm oil free because it was the only form that ingredient came in may now have to pro-actively request that theirs is from the palm free pile rather than just relaxing in the knowledge that it could be nothing else.  Again, you might think ‘well that’s no big, manufacturers should do that’ but how do they know?  Who keeps an eye on these things every day?  Not me.


In the last three months I’ve had two occasions where Ingredients  sold as only coming from palm free sources now contain palm unless a special request and more money is paid.  I’ve also had one occasion where a palm-only ingredient has now been made available in palm free and mass balanced options.   I found out about one of these when a client double checked everything as part of their launch process and another when I just happened to be browsing through a supplier catalogue. In two cases the changes had been made a while previous which means that there was room for error and potentially mis-selling – selling a palm-free product that contains palm.   In both of the scenarios above the range hasn’t yet launched so we’re good but I know that these projects aren’t the only ones out there that will be affected by this type of thing.

So what can brand owners and developers do?

Well, it all comes down to paperwork and promises.

Brand owners can only make promises that are equal or lesser than the ingredient supplier. So you can only safely claim palm free if your ingredient suppliers are happy to stamp and promote their ingredients as such.  This may seem like a no-brainer but lots of ingredients are incidentally made with other feedstock but wait until that other oil goes short in the market and BOOM, you might find that your coconut surfactant is now made from palm too!  See, it isn’t that simple.    The best you can do is get the paperwork from the ingredient supplier who must have that backed up by the manufacturer.

Once that’s done the next job is to keep checking back.  An annual paper audit of any ingredient that could have palm snuck back in may be appropriate and for some brands it may be a good strategy to blanket order or forward buy (into your warehouse) critical raws if practical.   It’s all a bit of a stress but if you are selling a palm free brand I would definitely take the control back and limit your risk of not being able to supply or having to quickly re-formulate out of an issue – yes, often (but not always) a change in the material spec will require you to re-run your stability, micro and manufacturing process and in some cases it might require a full re-formulation which is costly and time-consuming.

So is palm oil free worth it?

I’ve always been an advocate of being ‘in it to win it’ which basically means that I would rather people force change by supporting and promoting good behaviour from within than opting out.  But that said, the RSPO did have a bad reputation for a long time trust takes a long time to re-build so I can totally understand why people want to keep doing this.  So, I think that yes, palm free is still worth it from the perspective that it really does scream ‘what you are doing isn’t great’ and encourage people to think about what they are purchasing but whether it’s a good long-term strategy or whether it is a more sustainable choice now is highly debatable in my opinion.

Before I go I’ve shared a couple of pictures (above) from Dr Straetmans who have been active in palm-free and sustainable palm derivatives for a long time now but they are not above moving the goal posts as you might see if you look through their current vs past brochures.  In general Dr Straetmans have sought to increase their offering of sustainable palm which is a good thing that I congratulate but as I’ve mentioned above, palm free for once doesn’t necessarily mean palm free forever and you and I would be wise to keep our eye on that 😉

Happy shopping, formulating and selling guys whether it be palm free, mass balance or fully sustainable I’m sure it ROCKS x



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