Sustainable Beauty Coalition: Palm Oil

by | Dec 7, 2021

Palm oil is the most widely used vegetable oil in the world according to the WWF, and found in an estimated 50% of supermarket products, from detergents to ice cream.

It is not only the highest-yielding vegetable oil crop, it requires less than half the land that is needed to grow other comparable crops such as soybean, rapeseed and sunflower, to produce the same amount of vegetable oil. But this versatile oil is also extremely controversial.


Controversy surrounds both the social and environmental complexities of the palm oil industry – reports about Indonesian plantations, for example, suggest that production can often involve violation of human rights with poor working conditions, social injustice and conflicts over land. Indigenous peoples are reported as being affected by its cultivation and evicted from their land. Large areas of rainforest have been felled to make way for palm oil plantations – resulting in huge emissions from ruthless slash-and-burn practices.  The problem is particularly acute in Indonesia and Malaysia, where around 84 per cent of the world’s palm oil is produced.1


So what exactly is palm oil? Palm fruit are picked from palm trees and sent to a mill where the palm oil is extracted. Additionally, inside each fruit is a palm kernel. These produce palm kernel oil which is then refined and used by manufacturers for beauty and personal care products. Palm is the only crop that yields two different oils. Oil palms occupy the smallest proportion of all land used for oil and fat production, whilst at the same time accounting for the largest proportion of worldwide oil production. By comparison, sunflower, coconut and soybean all have, on average, a yield per hectare that is about one third of palm oil.


Compared to the use of palm oil in the food industry, or other sectors such as biofuels or industrial lubricants, its use by the beauty industry is modest. According to the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) only about 2% of the world’s palm oil and palm kernel oil production goes into cosmetics, and 3% for household cleaning products and personal care products – if we look at the statistics from a different perspective we discover that 70% of beauty or personal care products contain one or more palm oil derivative.2 So palm oil contributes significantly to the beauty industry, including the natural and organic cosmetics sector.


What makes palm oil such a valued beauty ingredient? Palm oil acts as a natural emulsifier, it can be used to produce plant-based tensides, it has no particular smell (unlike animal fats), and it provides a creamy skin-friendly texture for cosmetics such as soaps.


Worldwide, it is estimated we each consume around 8kg of palm oil a year, mostly sourced from Malaysia and Indonesia where it’s raising the incomes of plantation owners and farming communities but equally raising greenhouse gas emissions. It is also destroying the delicate habitats of endangered Sumatran tigers, rhinos and orangutans.


So should we ban palm oil in beauty products? Unfortunately the solution is never a simple one. Boycotting palm oil completely is not the best solution. Producers might respond by lowering their prices to increase demand from other markets that have less interest in sustainability. If beauty brands simply swap to alternative vegetable oils, which potentially use nine times as much farmland, the move could further add to loss of biodiversity and likely deforestation. According to the European Palm Oil Alliance, palm accounts for 6.6% of cultivated land for oils and fats, while delivering 38.7% of the output. A better solution is moving to sustainable palm oil – a view is supported by WWF, IUCN and Greenpeace.


The Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was founded 17 years ago as a non-profit international organisation to promote the growth and use of sustainable palm products through its standards. The RSPO developed a set of environmental and social criteria which companies must comply with to produce Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO). When properly applied, these criteria can help to minimise the negative impact of palm oil cultivation on both the environment and communities in palm oil-producing regions. Other similar standards are the Rainforest Alliance, the International Sustainability & Carbon Certification (ISCC), and the Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials (RSB).


The standards of the RSPO, currently the most widely used certification system for sustainable palm oil, don’t go far enough for many members. So in 2013 the Forum for Sustainable Palm Oil (FONAP) was formed to further raise standards and significantly boost the proportion of certified palm oil, palm kernel oil and their derivatives on the market. Currently only 19% of global palm oil is RSPO certified sustainable (14.3 million tonnes of palm oil), so there’s still a long way to go, with consumer pressure having a large part to play.


Whilst the problem of palm oil cannot be solved overnight, we can all set the intention to improve sustainable standards in the beauty industry by opting to buy cosmetics made only with CSPO. Many sustainable beauty brands are already sourcing CSPO for their formulations. At the start of 2021, NATRUE updated their criteria for certification of natural and organic cosmetics to include a new requirement for sustainable palm oil. Consumers can now tell at a glance, from the NATRUE seal on pack, whether a beauty product is one they can choose with a clean conscience.


“There is now growing availability of RSPO, fair trade, organic certified palm oil and so, in order to further tighten sustainable best practices, NATRUE recently introduced new label criteria by establishing strict quality requirements for sustainable sourcing of palm (kernel) oil and its derivatives for the NATRUE Standard.”

– Mark Smith, Sustainable Beauty Steering Committee


Manufacturers do not need to be NATRUE certified beauty brands to access NATRUE’s database of sustainable or organic palm oil producers, to upgrade existing formulations. Formulators can readily search the database for approved/certified raw materials, for free, and there is no need to join the association or become a NATRUE label user.


For example simply keying the term MB (for ‘Mass Balanced’) into the search on NATRUE’s database reveals 83 approved raw materials and a further 12 that are NATRUE certified. Additional ‘Segregated’ (SG) or ‘Identity Preserved’ (IP) certified materials are also included, and more detailed information for particular (INCI) ingredients is available from NATRUE on request. An alternative list of suppliers is available on the RSPO website, so manufacturers are not short on choice.


This article was written by the Sustainable Beauty Coalition, click here to find out more. 


1 (2018)

2 (Chris Sayer, VP of Corporate Sustainability, Croda)

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