Skip to content

Should vegan cosmetics be palm free?

October 2, 2018

Just recently I saw a call for all vegan cosmetics to be palm free or, to put it another way, for the vegan standard to be lobbied to encourage it to change to making palm oil a non-vegan input.

For those of you that are new to the background of palm oil there are quite a few articles on my blog but basically palm is a natural (green) source of ‘carbon’ for a cosmetic (as opposed to a natural (brown), unsustainable source (fossil fuels such as oil and gas).  This could be quite a good thing as lots of people want their cosmetic products to be full of  green carbon except that we are loving it a bit too much and demand for palm carbon is so big that we (globally) are replacing ancient forests with monoculture plantations.  You won’t necessarily find the word ‘palm’ or its INCI on your ingredient list as palm is most often chopped into pieces and spread around in your emulsifiers, preservatives, emulsion stabilisers, surfactants, humectants and other things.  This makes some people think they are being conned or lied to.  This isn’t really the case, it’s just chemistry. However, the whole issue is a hot potato for the cosmetic and food industries and not a week goes by when my cosmetic consulting work doesn’t involve a conversation of this sort.

Last week wasn’t the first time that the ‘palm free vegan’ quandary had come up for me.  I have had several customers over the year’s debate its place in a vegan product, mostly because of the epic levels of destruction to natural habitats that palm farming is wreaking. I didn’t really talk about it before though as the vegan market was quite niche and much more ‘extreme’ in what they were willing to tolerate and go without in order to support their values.  These days that has changed and vegan has become just another one of those claims that normal brands wish to make to enable them to sell more products.  Sounds cynical? I am a little but I temper that with the reality that at least these brands are trying to do what people want i.e: save the planet.  I’m just not sure they are achieving that but that’s not my responsibility…

Just as it helps to understand what palm oil is, it also helps to understand what a vegan cosmetic is.  It would be tempting to just say that it is a cosmetic that includes no animal derivatives or bi-products (silk, honey, milk, tallow etc) but that would only be partially true.  A vegan cosmetic is that but it is also a cosmetic that has traced its ingredients back to make sure they were not animal tested in recent history, that the supply chain isn’t supporting animal testing and that the products re generally environmentally mindful, especially in the area of animal protection.  Palm oil doesn’t come from the palms of animals, it comes from the trees that grow on the land that once used to be diverse forest and thanks to a few NGO’s palm oil has become synonymous with the plight of the Orangutan.

Clearing land for new palm plantations is happening most dramatically across Indonesia and Malaysia.  This clearing and re-planting is not exactly new, the practice has been going on for at least twenty years and every year the borders of the virgin rainforest creek backwards, taking diversity of plant and animal life with them.  Like many people, I get quite sad, maybe even borderline depressed about the fact that all my life so far I’ve only ever seen the natural environment suffer and die at the hands of ‘progress’.   Like many others I suspect,  grew up knowing that football-stadia sized chunks of forest were disappearing from the earth at an alarming rate.  I found that sad as my favourite woodland area, Dingley woods where we would picnic as children, was only 200 metres wide in places and was, its self shoe-horned in between farming land. I couldn’t imagine loosing my favourite fairy playground ever, let alone losing something like that on repeat.   The fact that palm plantations are responsible for such a massive loss of natural habitat makes it seem logical that avoiding palm would go someway towards solving this problem and for that reason I can understand why vegans would be all for it.

Dingley Woods

But is it true to say that palm oil is responsible for deforestation?

The simple answer to that is no. Palm oil is not responsible for any of this, its’ people and the choices that they (we) make that are responsible, people who rip up forest for any one of a number of reasons with planting palm being just one of them.

Where I used to live in the UK was, no doubt, surrounded in forest at one time but now it’s just pockets of ‘woodland’ surrounded by fields, roads, housing estates, shopping centres, airports, schools, hospitals, sports grounds and so on and so forth.  I wasn’t born when many of those trees came down, neither was my father or his probably.  The midlands where I grew up had been a profitable market town for hundreds, of years and as such, the trees had made way for the fields way back when.   My town didn’t chop down trees to make way for palm – the climate and soil wouldn’t be suitable, my town chopped down trees to make way for pigs, cows, sheep, oil seed, wheat, Rye, Barley, peas and more besides.   What Indonesia and Malaysia are doing now, my ancestors did a long time ago and with each tree that came down and piece of land that was changed, the beasts of our English forests went with them one by one until there were next to none left.

Let’s look at deforestation and land change. 

This article here is quite interesting. It shows the changes in agricultural area from 1998-2011 across the world by country, here is the data in picture form:

Ag Map

A quick look at that left me quite challenged.  I used to live in England and now live in Australia and they are both showing up as very green which means they have less agricultural land now than they did 20 years ago.  The fact that they have ‘become’ greener might lead me to think that these countries are unspoilt wildernesses with endless forests, wild rivers and fauna but I know this not to be true.   Conversely we see the red areas standing out like a global embarrassment or shame.  South America, Africa, Indonesia, Thailand, Burma, Vietnam, Papua New Guinea, Kazakhstan and all the other places that are red tell a different, opposing story, a story of growing agriculture – shrinking ‘green’.   This map can tell us something but it doesn’t tell us everything.  Agricultural land is probably shrinking in the UK (a country I can vouch for) because it is being replaced by concrete and structures,  not forests.  There is no need (or value) in the UK growing more stuff when other countries can grow it cheaper plus the land is already degraded so when that final bit of soil is hidden under road base few people protest because what life is still there is less personable than an Orangutan.  Who cares about a snail, vole or odd-looking beetle? Conversely we look at red areas such as Indonesia and Malaysia and tears fall as we know that this is untouched wilderness being ‘tamed’ and what’s more, it’s a long, long way from ‘us’ so it’s all problem rather than solution in our eyes. We are too far away to see or know the families that are now able to send their kids to school because of this red, the roads that can now transport goods to and from markets easily, the electricity lines going in, the ‘civilisation’.

Only it’s not civil is it?

Civil – Courteous and Polite.

Courteous – Considerate.

Polite – Respectful.

I think it is best if we all take our own time to think through how polite, courteous or, ultimately civil it is to sit wherever we sit pondering the criteria that should underpin the benchmark we use to judge our discretionary spending. After all, it’s a privilege not a right.

So should vegan cosmetic be palm free?

Ultimately the market will decide, I’m part of the market and I will make my choices when I purchase my goods and take on projects in my business.  You will do the same no doubt.  In terms of the bigger picture and to avoid (after all of this) sitting-on-the-fence I’d err on the side of saying that yes, palm free does make sense for vegans because there is no doubt that the land change going on to grow palm plantations is having tremendous impacts across the natural world and is quite possibly responsible for a huge percentage of diversity loss happening today.  However, I’d caution getting too myopic on this as, to my mind, palm is the symptom, not the disease and as such, taking a stand on this is more of a protest vote than a vote for real change.  Now all causes need focal points,  champions and protest rousing motions to get behind but we owe it to ourselves to use our privilege to go beyond just swapping out one new cosmetic for another ‘greener’ one without questioning what that ‘green’ really stands for. Put simply we can’t just sit back and think that buying more vegan cosmetics is going to change the world.

Changing the world might start with a protest, boycott or simple slogan but that’s not where it ends and if we want to end the devaluing of our natural world we need to do so much more than just that.


5 Comments leave one →
  1. October 2, 2018 12:39 pm

    In my opinion, a reasonably balanced view here.

    I’m not a defender of palm oil and the deforestation it causes. However, we do need to keep in mind that the agriculture associated with other oils also results in deforestation. I’m not sure why palm oil is always singled out.

    I’m Australian, and as a scientist has worked on the agricultural lands devastated by salt caused by the massive land clearing in Australia many decades ago. Farmers are certainly suffering now from this loss of land and the associated climatic effects.

    And yes, we use palm oil in our cosmetics manufacturing. It is certified sustainable and we use our own truck to fill our own containers from the factory. This is our final check to ensure the oil is genuine.

    Dr. Mike Thair

    Managing Director & Master Formulator
    Indochine Natural

    • RealizeBeautyEd permalink*
      October 2, 2018 12:49 pm

      Hi there Mike, I’ve been involved in and researched the palm oil situation for years and visited the peat bogs around 23 years ago to see for myself what was happening down there so I agree, we should look at other oils and should be mindful of the impacts that alternative choices have. Just in a nutshell though, palm oil is singled out because it is what is replacing virgin forest NOW and in such a dramatic way. It is a low-hanging-fruit target (plenty of puns there). I have mentioned in previous blogs that it is the highest yielding veggie oil so in many ways is a good choice but I’ve also mentioned that this high yield may well be due to the highly fertile ‘virgin’ soil it is growing in and not an inherent feature of the plant. I can’t prove that at this time but I know someone who could… Land clearing certainly does have devastating effects on all soils all over the world creating anything from dust bowls of top soil to the salted soils of the Australian landscape. It is truly devastating.
      I am a formulator/ brand developer too and work with both palm containing and palm free brands. I also see a place for both and for different types of environmental advocacy. It has become impossible not to debate the palm issue but I’d discourage anyone from trying to over-simplify it so yes, keep taking and sharing your perspectives as we really need to use all land well and not just the land that we (Australians) romanticise about.

  2. October 3, 2018 5:40 am

    In my opinion, the word vegan should be used as you had defined. No aminal products used in the making. Cruelty-free should be used for those to indicate no animal testing and for palm oil, it should be certified sustainably produced. Sustainability is the key in that situation. Muddying the waters by widening the definition is probably not a good idea.

    • RealizeBeautyEd permalink*
      October 3, 2018 7:01 am

      I can see the benefits of keeping it simple and focused. There are other certifications that can be used to identify products as palm free. However, I can also see the benefits of strengthening the vegan standard to cover issues like this. The only trouble then is when truly sustainable palm is farmed and banned, or when the land clearing starts happening because of coconuts, soy, corn or other crops (which it does). It certainly doesn’t pay to think this through shallowly

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: