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Palm Oil Position Statement

posted on Sep 29, 2010

It seems perfectly reasonable to want to boycott palm oil and its derivatives as it is palm plantations that are eating into what is left of Indonesia's rain forests and devastating Orang-Utan populations. The picture is grim and the thought of being a part of all that in the name of vanity feels downright wrong. We need to act, but is boycotting palm at a consumer level or banning it from our formulations at a manufacturing level going to solve this environmental crisis?

I think NOT.

The issue is complex and the solution a little difficult but together we can make a difference. Now, where do we start...

Q) What is Palm Oil?
Palm oil originates from the seeds of the Elaesis Guineensis (oil palm) tree, a crop that is native to West Africa but has since been cultivated across much of South East Asia and South America.  The global growth in palm oil farming is no coincidence as the crop is hardy, fast growing and offers a high yield of nutritionally rich oil.
The first press of the palm yields oil that is deep red in colour due to the high concentration of carotene, lycopene and vitamins. This is used across Asia and Africa for cooking where it provides the surrounding regions with their main source of calories.  Little of this crude oil is sold outside of these markets as the deep colour is hard to work around and so it goes on for further processing.  
The secondary refined process includes splitting out the vitamin E (tocopherol) which is sold separately and then fractionating (or splitting) the oily part into its many different fatty acids and Stearin - a natural triglyceride ester that is used in the manufacture of soap  or further processed into the common cosmetic ingredient, glycerine.   One of the reasons that palm oil has become such a main-stay of the 'natural' chemical industry is the fact that it provides such a wealth of ingredients within a single oil.  So, in addition to palm oil the plant also provides starting materials for many other cosmetic basics including:


Fatty Acid

Common chemical "children"

Palmitic Acid

Retinyl Palmitate

Isopropyl Palmitate

Ethylhexyl Palmitate

Stearic Acid

Sodium Stearate

Glyceryl  Stearate / distearate

Cetostearyl Alcohol/ Cetearyl Alcohol

Myristic Acid

Isopropyl Myristate

Myristyl Alcohol

Sodium Myristate

Linoleic Acid

Gamma-linolenic acid

 

 

Glycerine >

Polyglyceryl Esters >

Caprylic Capric Triglyceride  >

Caprylyl Glycol

Q) Wow, so can I assume that whenever I see the above ingredients they were made from palm?
Not entirely but it becoming more that way as more and more brands move away from Petroleum derived chemicals in favour of 'green chemistry' which uses renewable feed-stock.  Before the European 'Mad Cow' outbreak in Europe in the 1990's showed up in humans as Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a sizable portion of this chemistry was derived from beef fat.  However, fears about the disease crossing over into humans and a general desire to move away from animal bi-products moved this segment of the market into plant derived.  To sum up the above materials are sourced from two main feed stocks, petroleum or plant. Of the plant derived the most common (but not the only) feedstock is Palm.

Q) So how much palm oil and its derivatives end up in our cosmetics?
Well, as you would expect from such a useful crop, palm derived ingredients find their way into a huge array of industries and applications including food, biodiesel, medicine, weapon manufacture, household and industrial cleaning and of course cosmetics.
An estimated 150 million tonnes of Palm is produced each year and this figure is growing due to increased global demand for consumer goods and 'greener' technologies.  Of that 150 million tonnes around 30 million goes on to make surfactants - the main classification for palm derived personal care chemicals and this in turn keeps us clean, moisturised and coloured in! So, the cosmetics industry starts to look like a small yet highly significant part of a much larger problem (or opportunity if you like).
The bigger picture looks a bit like this. The global surfactants market uses about 120 million tonnes of fatty feedstock and this has to come from somewhere. Current estimations put the 'natural' component at about 50% with the other 50% being made up by petroleum - a ratio that is likely to tip further towards the green corner if we, the 'natural is better' market segment, keep growing.
In a nutshell palm oil for cosmetics currently accounts for 1/5th of production and with every fifth share of the pie growing as we seek to end our oil dependent relationship the future is looking anything but green and natural.

Q) So what is the problem?
The simple answer is that the problem is one of sustainability. The more complex answer involves oil return per hectare planted, natural limits to growth, education and land management.

Oil Return per Hectare.
Palm is not the only crop used in the chemical industry. In fact, the largest contributor to the oil pile is soya bean oil and the USA currently heads up the top producer chart (followed by Brazil and Argentina).  Next is Palm and then we having Canola oil followed by Sunflower.  Of all of these oils Palm with an average yield of 4 metric tonnes of oil per hectare is by far the best performer when it comes to yield and diversity of oil chemistry (by comparison, Soy gives an average yield of 1.4 MT per hectare and canola between 1.5-2 MT per hectare).  

Natural Limits to Growth.

You could be forgiven for thinking that we have learned nothing about managing natural resources over the last fourty years.  One look through the Club of Rome 1972 book, Limits to Growth, spells out the hard facts:
Growing population + One planet + Finite resources  + Improved lifestyle = Crunch time.
The palm oil issue is a great example of how we can only have our cake and eat it if we are willing to accept the consequences.

Education

Mention palm oil and most people will talk about Orang Utans being killed, land being torched and greedy chemical companies. While there is some truth behind that sentiment looking at the bigger picture shows that it makes no sense to boycott palm in favour of soy or canola.  While it is true and devastatingly sad to see rainforests ploughed out in favour of cash crops we risk shifting rather than solving the problem by ignoring the bigger picture surrounding this issue and that means doing the calculations on feedstock, looking at our relationship with consumer products, our purchasing habits and our personal choices.

Land Management.

The palm oil issue has given us in Australia the chance to see, smell and feel the effects of land-change on a grand scale. Most of us know of places that were 'all fields' in our youth and are now covered in real estate but what happened before we were children?  Much of Australia got cleared before we got here and the same goes for Europe, America, Africa and the rest of Asia. This does not make it right but it does allow for a certain degree of empathy - an opportunity arose to fill a growing need and it was taken.  Both Indonesia and Malaysia are aware of the land use issues and require our help to get on top of things.

Q) OK, so what do we do next?
Well, we need to work on both a private and a professional level to help turn the palm oil problem into a green solution.  The concern surrounding the growth in palm oil plantations has not fallen on deaf ears and many of the biggest oil users including Unilever, Nestle  Haribo and Europastry have joined the Malaysian Government in establishing a round table for sustainable palm oil plantations.  In fact the group now has over 400 members spanning all industry segments and geographies - a big thumbs-up for sustainability and environmentally responsible oil production.
While it is possible to purchase 'sustainable' palm oil it is very difficult due to the fact that palm is consolidated at the wholesale merchants making it hard to separate out one farmers crop from another.  However, as the demand for documentation grows so does the understanding of the marketplace and little by little, step by step progress is being made.  It may take several years before many of the bi-products from palm oil distillation can be certified in marketable quantities with any confidence. 
Many brands are opting out of palm as a feedstock and making marketing claims about being 'palm free'.   While this action may make the companies involved and the public feel good the environmental reality is less positive.  The coconut, a common palm replacement yields only half the oil of palm meaning that we will need double the land in the long run!
On a personal level we can all help to heighten the awareness of the benefits of using this oil over many other vegetable oils due to its higher yield and flexibility. We can also help by supporting the actions of the round table by paying that little bit extra at the counter for certified oil.  However, it is in our product usage and habits that we can have the greatest traction and make the biggest difference.  Unless we start to value our natural resources more the palm oil issue is likely to repeat time and time again as the world population continues to rise along with life style aspirations.  We should be prepared not only to buy smart but to formulate smart, sell smart and think smart.  Using less stuff may be the answer...

Q) About our suppliers.
Our supplier being the largest processor and supplier of fats and oils to Australia takes a pro-active approach in addressing and responding to a wide range of consumer issues, including ecological and environmental concerns.
One such pro-active measure is membership and involvement in the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil - a not-for-profit global association formally established under Article 60 of the Swiss Civil Code. By taking a multi-stakeholder approach, the Roundtable provides a unique forum for the pragmatic co-operation, consideration and promotion of sustainable production and use of Palm oil.
Our supplier imports significant volumes of refined, bleached and de-odourised Palm Oil form Peninsula Malaysia. Our supplier sources and procures Palm Oil from well-established plantations, many of which would have been converted from existing rubber plantations over two decades ago. As such, there are no implications of present or planned rainforest destruction in these areas.
Our supplier has no contracts with plantations in Borneo or Sumatra for the supply of Palm Oil.

Q) So, what can I expect New Directions to do next?
New Directions is committed to supporting the growth of your business by providing you with high quality, high performance and affordable materials. Wherever possible, organic and/or sustainably sourced materials are offered alongside our mainstream ingredients enabling you to set your brand philosophy with confidence. 
New Directions recognises that there is still a long way to go with the sustainable sourcing of palm and its derivatives and is committed to keeping our customers at the forefront of industry developments.  We encourage you to join with us in our support of sustainable palm as you formulate with the confidence that no planet was harmed in the making of your cosmetics.

Have fun, play safely and most of all think about the bigger picture.
 
 
 
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