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Palm Oil....difficult to avoid but an increasingly controversial ingredient

Today’s blog is a tough one. I considered not writing it, but in the end, because I am trying to

become a more ethical consumer and I am the producer of an eco-conscious brand, I couldn’t really avoid it. Literally.

As I write, I’m snacking on a very delicious cheese and cracker combo that would be better with a glass of wine. Given that it’s just gone 10am, I’m having it with tea instead. These lovely crackers put me in a predicament, however, because they, like almost half of everything you can buy in a supermarket, including margarine, chocolate, shampoo and washing powder, are made with palm oil.

Palm oil is a difficult to avoid but increasingly controversial ingredient.

On the one hand, it is said to bring economic development to poor countries, support the growth of smallholders, and be the most efficient oil producing crop to grow. On the other, the popularity of palm oil has contributed to massive deforestation, destruction of wildlife habitats, climate change and social conflict.

While oil palm is an incredibly efficient crop (producing 4 – 10 times more oil per hectare than soy or coconut), its growth in popularity over the past few decades has resulted in allegations of corruption and land grabbing, forced and child labour and other community conflicts; as well as increasing concern over the effect on the environment and climate in place where land is razed to make way for oil palm fields.

So why use it in soap? Or, why continue to use it, knowing what I know?

Palm oil is a popular soap making oil and found in most soap recipes online. It adds to the hardness of the bar and to the stability of the lather and makes an all-round lovely soap. As a novice soap maker, I included it in my recipe without a thought. Now that I know more, I tend to leave it out of bars that I am experimenting with, but I’m not sure if giving up using it entirely is not as problematic as using it in the first place.

What would we replace it with if we did give up using palm oil entirely? Growing alternative but less efficient oil producing crops would only increase deforestation as the demand for land grew, and soybean and coconut palm plantations are not without their own links to deforestation and destruction already. A ban on palm oil would also affect the life and livelihoods of millions of people at grassroots level.

I’ve made a choice to try and be part of the solution to bring about more regulation and

accountability in palm oil production, which, while not a perfect solution, is a start. I only use

sustainable palm oil, which means that the palm oil I buy is produced by a company that adheres to social and environmental standards as set out and certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). They are trying to regulate and minimise the impact of palm oil production on the environment and in communities, making positive changes to fulfil a need that is not going to go away.

If people choose to buy only products that contain only sustainable palm oil, manufacturers will be obliged to use only sustainable palm oil, making the certification a necessity and regulation a norm.

A tricky ingredient, then, to write about. But an important conversation to have. Trying to balance our needs and desires as consumers with the impact we have on the planet can sometimes feel like a tightrope walk of doom, but I do believe that individual choices make a difference. So, I’m going to continue to read labels, try to avoid palm oil in my food, and support organisations who are trying to make change. Is this the right choice? I’m not sure yet.

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