Marla Bosworth is the founder and owner of Back Porch Soap Company. She teaches classes, corporate events and experiences including candle making, soap making, organic skincare and perfumery.

February 26, 2012

Palm Oil in Cosmetics Series: Part One

Why I"m Going Palm-Free in My Beauty Products (mp3)

This is a multi-part series on the usage of palm oil in soaps, beauty products and cosmetics. First we will discuss the environmental effects of palm oil harvesting. The second post will give suggestions on how to formulate palm-free, cold process soaps. Future posts will include substituting palm-based waxes in creams and lotions and a few guest posts from some of my new friends in the world of saving orangutans.

Why this article? Well, mostly because I’ve had a love-hate relationship with palm oil for the past two years. I’ve enjoyed the conditioning properties it lends to my cold process soaps. It is a dependable oil that I count on to create a firm bar of soap. On the other hand, every time I make a batch of soap with palm oil, I feel a twinge of guilt. I think about deforestation and orangutans losing their homes. I picture their faces, and wonder what turmoil they encountered when their home was grazed all in the name of harvesting palm oil. 

My awareness to the severity of palm oil’s impact on the orangutans was brought to light two years ago when I interviewed Pangea Organics founder, Joshua Onysko in Boulder, Colorado. I had heard of the palm oil controversy, but in talking with him I realized that any usage of the ingredient – from a pound to a tonnage – was contributing to the destruction of the orangutans.

Later that year Onysko’s company partnered with the Jane Goodall Institute to further bring awareness and support to the endangered orangutans. I was impressed with Pangea’s actions. At the time I had a list of excuses as to why I had a firm grip on using palm oil. 
  •  It’s too much work to reformulate and try new recipes.
  • I’m just one soapmaker. How much of a difference will I really make?
  • Just how bad is the deforestation?
  • Is it true that the orangutans are losing their homes?
  • Everyone else uses palm oil.
 The United Nations Environment Programme estimates that an area of Indonesian rainforest the size of six football fields is cut down every minute of every day. Although the biggest usage of palm oil is for food and biofuel in western countries, the use of palm for cosmetics isn’t far behind. 

This is the year that I’m taking the palm-free plunge. No more palm in soap, cosmetics or food. I’m reading more labels and questioning products that I purchase.

The Severity of the Matter
A little research on the internet will leave you with images you won’t forget. Yes, the deforestation is horrendous. Yes, the orangutans are still losing their homes. In fact, the Sumatran orangutan population has declined 70 percent since 1994 and is directly related to palm oil harvesting.

But there is much more to the story. The expansion of palm oil plantations is forcing orangutans out of their habitat, and as they leave their territory they approach neighboring areas and villages. People consider them a threat and kill them.

Taken in Tanjung Putting National Park in Central Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo).
Photo Pat Svetaka at Camp Leakey
There are acts of violence against the orangutans. As recent as December 2011, Malaysian palm oil companies were responsible for genocide against Indonesia’s orangutans. Palm oil plantation workers killed 20 orangutans by chasing them with dogs, shooting, stabbing and then hacking them to death with machetes. This is not an industry I want to support.

“The forests of Borneo and Sumatra are the only two places on Earth where these gentle, intelligent creatures live. The cultivation of palm oil over the last decade has directly led to the slaughter of thousands of individuals as the industry has expanded into previously undisturbed areas of old-growth rainforest,” says Willie Smits, a trained forester, microbiologist, conservationist and animal rights activist.

“Some of the luckier baby orangutans are confiscated and brought to sanctuaries such as Samboja Lestari, as Willie mentioned, or the Nyaru Menteng Orangutan Rescue Center, which is now home to nearly 700 orphaned and displaced orangutans in Central Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo). Many of these orangutans are only weeks old when they arrive, and all of them are psychologically traumatized and desperate for their mothers — who are no longer alive. And remember, these are the fortunate ones. For every one we rescue, at least six others are estimated to have been killed, along with their mothers.”

Palm oil is the leading cause of deforestation in southeast Asia. More than 1,000 orangutans die annually because of land clearing and fires from peat smoulders. It’s shocking that 90 percent of orangutan habitat has been lost. Reports indicate that orangutans will be extinct in several  years if serious efforts aren’t made to help them overcome the threats they face. It’s not only the orangutans who are suffering – it’s also affecting other wildlife such as tigers and elephants.

Resources: Ready to Take Action?
Project Kalaweit
Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Program
Follow activists: Suci Utama, Erik Meijaard and Lone Droscher-Nielson
Nyaru Menteng Orangutan Rehabilitation Center
Sponsor an Orangutan:
Consider Donating to Orangutan Outreach:
Rainforest Action Network: (search for “palm oil” and “orangutans”)
The Jane Goodall Institute

Marla Bosworth is the CEO and Founder of Back Porch Soap Company, She teaches group and private classes on how to make natural skincare products in Boston and NYC. Ms. Bosworth also provides product, brand and marketing strategies for handmade beauty companies. 


Leanne from Feel at Home said...

I am a soapmaker in New Zealand - I don't use Palm oil in any of my products. But it is a stand that has caused an increase in my pricing in a very unstable economy - but... I firmly believe it is the right decision. Thanks for writing about it.

Susan said...

Hi Marla,
I too am going palm free this year, after I use up my palm, it's gone. I feel very much the same way you do, the love hate relationship with this wonderful oil that is wreaking havoc on the environment and the creatures that are adversely affected. I had a guy come by my booth at a farmers market last year who had been working with the orangutans, the orphans, we had a long talk. I felt horrible/guilty, he assured me it was the big soap companies, not the small ones, but I knew it is everyone who uses palm.
I do believe there is stearic acid and emulsifying wax that is made with coconut oil, sometimes the distributor says 'both'.
Anyway, good for you, and for the orangutans.
Best, Susan
SUZ Bath and Body

backporchsoap said...

Hi Leanne and Susan,
Thanks for your comments and for committing to producing palm-free soaps!

Katherine Soto said...

Marla, Susan and Leanne,

I am a student of Anthropology with a focus on Primatology. One of my life's goals is to become a researcher of orangutan behavior and conservation. I too abstain from the use of palm oil products. I applaud your efforts to take a stand for the betterment of a species so similar to our own. The sacrifices you are making to continue a palm-free lifestyle and the time you are taking to educate yourself and others about the issue are admirable. You are planting seeds of knowledge and empathy for animals who cannot defend themselves. These beautiful creatures rely on people like you. Please continue to work for this cause! I know it may seem as if little is being done despite your efforts, but every little bit counts.

Katherine Soto

backporchsoap said...

Hi Katherine,

Thank you for your comments! I have quite a few colleagues who work with orangutans. Check out Centre for Orangutan Protection on Facebook!

Sarah Bubble & Flame Soap & Candle said...

I have been Palm free baby for nearly a full year! All because you shared your information!

backporchsoap said...

Congrats, Sarah! That's great news!

Heidi said...

And this is the firs article I have read about this and it's enough for me to NEVER buy this oil for my soap making. Not ever. It's horrendous and heartbreaking. All creatures have a right to live in peace.

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