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The evil oil July 21 2015

        We are guilty! Most of our soaps do contain palm oil. Early on in our soap making endeavors, we made this choice for two reasons. Palm oil contributes to a long lasting, hard soap bar with thick, stable lather. Also, all the soap making books we read recommended this oil, so we used it in our formulations as 15% of total oils. It was either that or animal fat.

Initially, we were ignorant of the negative impact that the production of this oil has on our planet. In fact, we loved how our soaps turned out which made it easier to neglect the negative issues surrounding one of the ingredients. After a year of soap making, however, we could not turn a blind eye anymore. No longer ignorant, we decided to act.  We managed to achieve the same effects as palm oil by substituting it with a mixture of various other oils. New formulations were born together with important new realizations. Our soaps do not need palm oil, and we certainly do not want it. From now on, none of our products will even go near palm oil.

The ecological impact of oil palm plantations seems huge. The massive agro-business associated with this crop has been the direct cause of many problems: deforestation; endangered wildlife species; habitat destruction and fragmentation; pollution of soil, air, and water; social conflict and displacement of local communities. 

 

Because oil palm plantations grow where dense and bio-diverse rainforests flourish, orangutans and many other species will not only lose their habitats, but also their lives. If workers or starvation do not kill endangered species, poachers will come for them on the newly built plantation roads. While it was difficult for hunters in the past to track rare animals in the dense jungle, now they can simply drive deep enough and wait for their victims to come in range for killing. 

     Indonesia and Malaysia’s tropical forests host magnificent wildlife – Sumatran tigers, rhinoceroses, proboscis monkeys, Asian elephants, barking deer, gibbons, and clouded leopards, among others, face tremendous threats and some of them imminent extinction. Yet these countries have given up a huge percentage of their land for deforestation and palm plantations. A few governments, individuals and corporations make billions while the planet loses its bio diversity that we may never regain. 

     Palm oil certainly raises concerns on which everybody should focus. We began reading about it and the more information we sought the more it became clear what we needed to do. Our eyes were soon open. Not long after our initial realization, a customer sent us an email to express her disappointment that our “otherwise such good soaps” contained this destructive oil. After this, we decided to quit using palm oil altogether and it was only a matter of time before we exhausted our inventory to do so. 

 We recently came across a video that pushed us to forget about the inventory and quit immediately.  The video showed a young orangutan (one of the most severely affected species) that communicated with a deaf human girl using sign language.  The dialogue was short, but with a powerful message. The primate pointed to a banana as her favorite meal after which she inquired what the human ate. The young girl explained that she ate peanut butter. “Your food destroys my home,” said the orangutan with a compelling facial expression. They are emotional beings not much different than humans, yet our civilization’s greed and economies of scale destroy them along with many other species of plants and animals. 

 

    Vanishing wildlife is only one aspect of the problem. Rainforests include 70% of world’s species of plants and animals (over 200 tree species per acre compared with only a few in Europe for example). These tropical jungles work through a lot of carbon dioxide to supply our atmosphere with oxygen. Therefore, they influence both local and global climate. Tropical forests play a crucial role in moderating temperatures, regulating humidity and in absorbing excessive rainfall to prevent floods. Complex ecosystems, such as those in South-east Asia, developed over millions of years, yet they will succumb quickly.  Humanity’s greed will destroy them in a tiny fraction of that time.  If you consider Indonesia’s and Malaysia’s plans, the end will be by 2020.  They aim at developing an additional 50,000 square kilometers of rain forest by then. It is a shame to use the products of their plans, a shame we can no longer bear. 

Many people would say that sustainable palm oil plantations provide environmentally friendly alternative to the mass produced oil in south-east Asia.  The so-called “sustainable oil” seems just as bad and consumers become victims of marketing tricks, manipulations, and clever agendas to conceal what really goes on. Even those sustainable plantations need space to grow and for that trees and animals must die. Local communities of forest-dwelling tribes become either displaced from their homes or sucked into the palm-farming bubble.  Those who “choose” to make a living by growing oil palm, survive entirely dependent on the industrial giant. The poor people of local communities live constantly exploited and underpaid- pawns in the big scheme of profit margins and production quotas. Unfortunately, the people of Borneo, Sumatra and Papua New Guinea cannot preserve their cultural heritage when they become palm oil farmers/slaves.  Slowly but surely humanity will lose knowledge and traditions that cannot be quantified in monetary terms.  Instead, these isolated, poor peoples will see their home, their jungle to become plantations. People have little choice but to work on for unfair wages and under terrible conditions. 

Meanwhile huge conglomerates of corporations own the land, the palms, the oil and the means to extract it, leaving communities poor, dependent and miserable. Using a variety of different pesticides and herbicides, they poison the soil and ground waters for generations to come. Local governments only make it easier with tax breaks, subsidies, cheap resources, and land ready to be burned, ravaged, and replanted with crops that are not even native to the region.  

As individual consumers, we have little power. But together as individuals of society, we can change the way we do things. Responsibility is key in stopping this crisis. Active involvement by consumers can help curtail the destruction of rainforests and wildlife. We can demand processed foods without palm oil. We can reduce its use in cosmetics. Consumers should be careful about what they buy and the contents. When palm oil must be used, we can choose suppliers that really care about true sustainability and fairness. Humanity is the biggest control organ of this industry because governments fail to govern properly. Whether we can avert a bigger ecological disaster will be a measure of civilizations’ stewardship of this planet.