Dealing with Ambiguity- Palm Oil

July 2, 2010

Palm oil is one of the main oils that soap makers use, and I’ve been trying to find an ethical source. It’s been problematic. I ordered unrefined organic, Fair Trade palm kernel oil from Agbanga Karite. It has a strong nutty, earthy smell. I ignored this and made the soap with my normal recipe. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that if you use a strongly scented fat, you’re going to get a strongly scented soap. I learned that the palm oil that I’ve gotten from soap making suppliers is refined, bleached, deodorized palm oil. This is the preferred palm oil for soap making. The batches of soap that I made using six ounces of unrefined palm oil will be used in our household- it’s nothing that anyone would want to buy. When I contacted the supplier that Dr. Bronner’s uses, they didn’t return my e-mail. I’m actually getting that a lot. Contacting people- with e-mails unreturned. I understand that people are busy. But, I would be lying if I told you that my unsuccessful attempts to get help weren’t frustrating.

So, I’ve been back at it trying to find a supplier. But, I’ve run into another snag. Palm oil is very problematic in terms of sustainability. It’s a significant contributor to deforestation in Indonesia and Malaysia. With an increased demand for non-hydrogenated vegetable oils, the demand for palm oil has increased quite a bit. So, more oil palm trees are being planted. This is problematic for several reasons. First, it’s destroying the habitat for the Sumatran tiger, Asian rhinoceros and the Sumatran orangutan- all of these animals are endangered. Second, many of these areas that are being leveled to raise oil palms are biodiversity hotspots. Biodiversity hotspots are areas where there is a huge variety of flora and fauna- much greater than in other areas. Third, many of the areas that are being de-forested to plant oil palms are peat bogs. There is a huge amount of carbon sequestered in peat bogs- when these bogs are leveled, it releases a significant amount of carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas) into the atmosphere. According to wikipedia, the destruction of peat bogs accounts for 4% of global greenhouse emissions. While palm oil production isn’t at fault for all of this, it is a contributor. Lastly, the land of the the Dayak people of Borneo is being planted with oil palms without their consent and despite their objections.

I’ll mention that from what I’ve read, palm oil is being raised sustainably in west Africa. So, I think that it is possible to get ethically produced palm oil.

I’m a “throw the baby out with the bath water” kind of person. God isn’t, and I’m so glad (I would have been tossed a long time ago). I’m tempted to just give up on palm oil. I was praying about it this morning. I think these issues matter to God.

Eccleseastes 7:18 (from The Message). It’s best to stay in touch with both sides of an issue. A person who fears God deals responsibly with all of reality, not just a piece of it.

So, I’m dealing with some different questions:

Is anyone producing palm oil in a sustainable way? I think so.
If so, will they let me buy from them?
Is the energy consumed to purify palm oil for soap making justifiable?
Will people want to buy soap made only from olive oil?

Until I get some of those questions answered, I’m going to switch over to making shea butter, coconut oil and olive oil soaps.

It’s a wonderful thing to have problems that you actually choose for yourself.


7 Responses to “Dealing with Ambiguity- Palm Oil”

  1. Andy Says:

    What about using peanut oil or soybean oil? What makes palm oil preferable for soap? Don’t be afraid to “think outside of the box”…you may be the inventor of a whole new process for making soap. Love you!

    • robinjohnsonsimpson Says:

      It’s a combination of lather and hardness that palm oil adds. It’s really a core ingredient in most soaps. I’m truly open to other fats, though. The source of the fats is really important to me, though. Peanut is probably out because nut allergies are so common. I would consider soy, but I’m hesitant. It’s subsidized, which means that there’s a significant surpulus, which means that producers are trying to find a way to use it, which means that it’s showing up in everything. Think soy candles, soy milk, soy meat. I could geek out here and rant on, but I’ll spare you. In general, I’m a little leary of subsidized foods. Then there’s the whole organic and non GMO issue.

      The larger issue for me is that I’m hoping to create demand for goods that support the developing world in meaningful ways. I would love to see the people who produce the raw ingredients earn a living wage- from the people who pick to the people who process. In other words, funneling money to products that provide a living wage for those who are living in poverty. I think that buying fairly traded goods is a step in the right direction, which is why I’m willing to pay a premium for them.

      Now if I can just get them. . .

      Ecclesiastes 10: 10

      The duller the ax the harder the work;
      Use your head: The more brains, the less muscle.

      So, I’m going to write to Fearless Planet and Jungle Products again in hopes that they will be willing to sell the processed palm oil to me.

      All the other Fair Trade producers that I’ve found have unprocessed palm oil. As I’ve said, it’s a bit stinky. So, Fearless Planet and Jungle Products are my best shot (at least, that I know of at this point).

  2. Andy Says:

    Can you refine the unprocessed palm oil? What would be involved with doing it yourself?

  3. Robin,

    I am not sure if this palm oil will meet all your criteria (free trade and all) but Soapers Choice/Columbus Foods sells a sustainable palm oil.

    Deb Doubek
    Peterman Brook Herb Farm

  4. Katie Says:

    I currently make soap using coconut oil, olive oil, soya bean oil and cocoa butter. You have inspired me to look further into the production of the oils I use. Thanks!

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