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Can Palm Oil Be Sustainable?

Palm oil is everywhere.

It’s in the products we use, the food we eat, and the gasoline that fuels vehicles [1]. The electricity that allows you to read this article may have been generated from burning palm oil kernels [2].

Sustainable and fair trade palm oil is now on the market, but this label—like many other labeling—has some flaws. 

Here’s the lowdown on what palm oil is, the problematic label of sustainable palm oil, and what you can do to work towards real sustainability. 

What Is Palm Oil?

Palm oil is made from the fruit of— you guessed it! —oil palm trees. It’s cheap and versatile, and a very common type of tree. Palm oil is incredibly cheap and versatile compared to the alternatives, and so it’s in high demand. 

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It’s able to grow easily in humid climates, which poses a problem: the climates that it grows best in also houses 80% of the world’s species [3].

What’s the Controversy with Palm Oil?

Palm oil manufacturers are destroying the rainforest to make more room for oil palm trees.  Indonesia alone lost a rainforest the size of Oregon in the last 25 years [4]. (Not Powell’s bookstore. Not Portland. The whole state of Oregon.) 

Palm oil deforestation destroys the local villages that rely on the rain forests for their livelihood. Palm oil proponents argue that palm oil production brings a new economy to impoverished areas, but it’s akin to building a chain supermarket in a small town: it typically is devastating to local businesses[5]. 

Palm oil is the leading cause of orangutan extinction [6], and it’s also threatening over 193 critically endangered or vulnerable species [7]. You don’t need a picture of an orphaned baby orangutan with Sarah McLaughlin singing in the bathroom to conceptualize how awful that is.

Greenhouse gasses are destroying the environment. The by-products of palm oil production release insane amounts of greenhouse gasses, which are quickly depleting our ozone layer [8]. 

Can Palm Oil Be Sustainable? 

In the same way that vegan milk shimmied into the spotlight after issues in the dairy industry came to the surface, palm oil has a new alternative: sustainable palm oil. 

Unfortunately, sustainable palm oil is nothing more than greenwashed branding. 

It’s like when cashew milk exploded into popularity: it seemed like a great alternative until we realized how toxic the processing of cashews was for the humans doing the harvesting [9].

Here’s the deal: a group called the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was formed, and they created a plan for eventually making palm oil “sustainable” [10]. 

The RSPO label doesn’t mean that sustainable palm oil is from a sustainable source. It just means that companies who have taken the RSPO pledge agree to be monitored, and want to make their practices sustainable eventually [11].

Sustainable label or not, oil palm trees need to be processed to create palm oil.  It’s time to ditch palm oil and start seeking out alternatives in your food and beauty products. Unfortunately, swapping it out for another oil isn’t that easy. 

Do Vegan Products Contain Palm Oil?

When it comes to vegan products, there’s some bummer news: there’s a label loophole that palm oil slides right into. 

  • Palm oil is technically vegan.  
  • Cruelty-free means that your product wasn’t tested on animals. 
  • Clean beauty means that your product's ingredients haven’t been shown to harm human health. 

You can see the issue here. Palm oil is legally allowed to be vegan, clean, and cruelty-free because the labels don’t look at what happens after the palm oil is made: deforestation, and loss of habitat for the animals who lived there. 

Ethically and morally, it’s a different picture. It’s like drinking milk: while the mother cow wasn’t killed to create that milk, there’s a whole bevy of destruction, pain, and harm that went into the production of that milk. 

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The good news: most vegan companies, particularly those in the beauty industry, work hard to use products that are palm oil free. Your Oreos might need a dupe, but your lipgloss may be safe. Try to stick with companies that have ethical pledges, and check the label to see if your products contain palm oil or its derivatives. 

What Are Sustainable Alternatives to Palm Oil? 

While palm oil is causing deforestation, there’s not a great alternative. Palm oil takes up the least amount of space with the most amount of yield in comparison to other crops that could be a good substitute. 

Scientists are looking at a wide variety of replacements: insects, algae, and GMO tobacco oil are some of the forerunners. 

Insects are out for obvious reasons. The other solutions will be a long time coming. Here’s what you can do in the meantime. 

How To Reduce Your Palm Oil Consumption

Like so many other issues, the use of palm oil seems inevitable. This feeling of helplessness can feel familiar when we consider all of the ways that the earth and its animals are being destroyed. There’s so much to do, and large companies are the biggest culprits. We have to lower the demand for palm oil, which will in turn affect companies. 

Here Are a Few Ways to Help Reduce Industry Demand for Palm Oil:

  • If you haven’t already, eliminate or greatly reduce your animal product consumption, and stop eating processed meats altogether. Palm oil is a huge ingredient in industrial feed. Check out some of our guides to going vegan, and make sure that your meat alternatives are free from palm oil. 
  • If you’re already vegan, try to stick largely to whole foods or companies that are committed to sustainability. They are the least likely to contain palm oil or use palm oil for manufacturing. Eating local produce is also a great way to give money back to smaller farms, and picking your produce is a killer date night activity. 
  • Try to find products that are free from palm oil and its derivatives. Remember that palm oil can show up anywhere from soup to shampoo, so do some research before buying anything that doesn’t have an ingredient label. Check out some palm oil free products below—we promise you won’t miss palm oil! 

Palm Oil Free Beauty and Skincare Products We Love

Here are some palm oil free, Kinder Beauty-approved products that you can use to create a friendlier beauty routine. 

Honua Skincare Māhealani Moonlit Glow Balm 

Instead of palm oil, this balm uses a blend of exotic and fair-trade oils including kukui nut, jojoba, acai fruit oil, and more. Rich, nourishing, and totally lovely for the planet. 

OMG! Hydrating Shampoo Bar

If you haven’t tried an Oh My Garden Shampoo Bar, you’re missing out. Instead of the usual palm oil laden formulas, OMG! Shampoo Bars use  Kokum Butter, Macadamia Oil, and Mango Butter to nourish your locks, and a blend of plant-based glycerin and coconut oil to keep your mane hydrated. It keeps your hair vibrant and healthy, without a lick of palm oil in sight. Check out the Kinder Beauty marketplace for the latest scents. 

Ellovi Vanilla Butter

Finding a good lotion or moisturizer dupe can be one of the hardest parts of going palm oil free. Ellovi Vanilla Butter locks it down with just six sustainable, wild-harvested ingredients. And, the smell is out of this world! 

Want more clean, ethical, and vegan beauty products? At Kinder Beauty, we are committed to making the world a more ethical place.

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Alexis Yeager is a Colorado-based writer focused on veganism, holistic wellness, and sustainable beauty.



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