Sustainable Palm Oil: The Beauty Dilemma

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Palm oil has established itself as a ubiquitous and indispensable ingredient in the beauty industry,
finding its way into an array of cosmetic and personal care products. 

It’s widespread use can be attributed to several key characteristics that make it a valuable ingredient
for beauty formulations. It serves as a natural emulsifier, facilitating the blending of diverse
components in cosmetic products. It can also be harnessed to produce plant-based tensides, offering
an eco-friendly alternative to synthetic chemicals. Unlike animal fats, palm oil carries no particular
odor, allowing it to blend seamlessly with various fragrances. Additionally, it provides a luxurious,
creamy texture to beauty products like soaps, enhancing their appeal to consumers. 

Despite these many uses, there is increasing concern about the use of palm oil in the beauty industry
due to its association with deforestation, biodiversity loss, and potential negative environmental and
social impacts. But are these fears well founded, or is the palm oil industry cleaning up its act? This
article will examine the sustainability issue more closely and consider what the beauty industry is
doing to tackle them. 

Why is palm oil considered unsustainable?

Palm oil used to be considered unsustainable due to its association with deforestation, biodiversity
loss, greenhouse gas emissions, and soil and water pollution. The expansion of palm oil plantations
often involved clearing tropical rainforests, leading to habitat destruction and displacement of
indigenous communities and wildlife. Unsustainable agricultural practices and human rights
violations, including labor exploitation, further contributed to its negative reputation.

What is sustainable palm oil?

Sustainable palm oil refers to palm oil that is produced using environmentally responsible and socially
equitable practices, with a focus on minimizing deforestation, protecting biodiversity, respecting the
rights of local communities, and adhering to recognized sustainability standards and certifications.
Much of the global supply of palm oil is already sustainable as, currently palm oil supplies between
35% and 40% of the world’s vegetable oil demand on just under 6% of the land
used to produce all
vegetable oils.

To replace palm oil with alternative oils like soybean, olive, or sunflower oil, you
would need anywhere from four to ten times more land, according to Chester Zoo. This shift would merely relocate the problem to other parts of the world, jeopardising additional habitats, species, and

Even the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) acknowledges that palm oil can contribute to sustainability if it’s managed properly. As of the time of writing, around 93% of the palm oil imported into Europe (including the UK) is certified sustainable and does not cause deforestation.

Easing deforestation concerns

Deforestation linked to palm oil production has been a significant concern. However, a recent study
by the independent non-profit organisation Global Forest Watch in June 2023 reported a sharp
reduction in forest loss in Malaysia and Indonesia. The study indicated that oil palm corporations have
taken action, with around 83% of palm oil refining capacity operating under a ‘No Deforestation, Peat and Exploitation (NDPE)’ commitment.

This more recent report from Global Forest Watch suggests that the efforts in places that produce the
most palm oil are starting to bear fruit in reversing deforestation, which should alleviate concerns
among environmental campaigners and activists.

Is the beauty industry taking action toward producing sustainable palm oil?

The use of palm oil in the beauty industry is subject to regulatory measures aimed at ensuring
responsible and sustainable sourcing practices. One of the prominent initiatives in this regard is the
Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) , which has established a certification system to promote the use of sustainably sourced palm oil. Many beauty companies have committed to using RSPO-certified palm oil in their products, demonstrating their dedication to ethical sourcing.

Here are the key criteria of the RSPO:

Legal Compliance: Producers must comply with all relevant laws and regulations in the country where they operate.

Environmental Responsibility: This includes measures to minimise the environmental impact of palm oil production, such as avoiding deforestation, protecting biodiversity and critical habitats, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and managing water resources sustainably.

Responsible Development of New Plantings: The RSPO guidelines require that new palm oil plantations do not result in the destruction of high conservation value forests or high carbon stock forests.

Transparency: Producers are expected to provide information on their practices and performance in a transparent manner.

Fair Treatment of Workers and Communities: This involves ensuring fair labor practices, respecting the rights of workers, and engaging with and benefiting local communities.

Use of Best Farming Practices: RSPO promotes the use of responsible agricultural practices, such as integrated pest management, responsible use of fertilisers, and efficient water use.

Traceability: The RSPO requires that palm oil be traceable through the supply chain back to certified sources.

Smallholder Inclusion: RSPO encourages the inclusion of smallholders in sustainable palm oil production.

No Burning: Producers are prohibited from using fire to clear land for plantations.

Commitment to Continuous Improvement: Companies involved in the RSPO commit to ongoing efforts to improve their practices and reduce their environmental and social impacts.

These criteria are designed to guide the palm oil industry toward more sustainable and responsible
practices, with the goal of reducing the negative environmental and social impacts associated with
palm oil production. Companies that meet these criteria can achieve RSPO certification for their palm
oil products.

Additionally, various governmental regulations and international agreements have been put in place to
address the environmental and social impacts of palm oil production.

For example, the Malaysia Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) Board was formed in 2015 to certify sustainable grown palm oil and, in 2017, the government of Malaysia mandated MSPO certification
starting in 2020. Positive government action has continued in more recent years, with a plantation area cap established in 2019 through 2023, and new forestry laws enacted in 2022 to stiffen penalties for illegal logging.

In addition to that, around 96% of Malaysian palm oil plantations—many of them run by 300,000
smallholder farmers—are now MSPO-certified under the Malaysia Sustainable Palm Oil Scheme .
This was a new nationally mandated sustainability standard enforceable by the law, the first of its kind
in the world.

These regulations aim to mitigate deforestation, protect biodiversity, and safeguard the rights of local
communities affected by palm oil plantations. As a result, there is growing pressure on the beauty
industry to adhere to these regulations and transition to more sustainable and responsible palm oil
sourcing practices, aligning with broader global efforts to combat the negative consequences
associated with palm oil production.

What are beauty brands doing?

This versatile ingredient’s allure to the beauty industry has prompted major companies to take steps
toward ethical and sustainable sourcing, recognizing both its importance and the need for responsible
practices in its production. 

Estee Lauder, for instance, has established a platform dedicated to showcasing its efforts in sourcing
ethical and sustainable palm oil for the beauty industry. Meanwhile Credo Beauty has taken a public
stance on various ingredients, including palm oil, by advocating for sustainably produced palm oil
rather than a blanket prohibition.

L’Oréal is another industry giant committed to sustainable palm oil sourcing. The company has gone
beyond basic compliance, earning a top ranking in the WWF’s palm oil buyer’s scorecard due to its
continued efforts in this area.

Weleda, a multinational producer of beauty products and naturopathic medicine argue that boycotting
palm oil entirely may not be the best solution. Such a move could lead producers to lower their prices
to meet demand from markets less interested in sustainability, potentially undermining the incentive
for environmentally sustainable palm oil production. Additionally, companies might turn to
alternative oils from other crops, which can require up to nine times as much farmland as palm oil,
contributing to biodiversity loss and deforestation.

Weleda’s position aligns with the views of prominent organizations such as the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and the International Union of Conservation and Nature (IUCN), which all support the shift toward sustainable palm oil production.

Beauty brands with an RSPO certificate

Here are a few beauty brands that were known for their commitment to RSPO-certified palm oil:

The Body Shop: The Body Shop has been a long-time advocate for ethical and sustainable sourcing and is known for using RSPO-certified palm oil in its products.

L’Oréal: L’Oréal, one of the world’s largest beauty companies, has made efforts to source RSPO-certified palm oil and has been recognized for its sustainability initiatives.

Estée Lauder: Estée Lauder has established a platform highlighting its efforts to source ethical and sustainable palm oil for the beauty industry.

Unilever: While Unilever is a consumer goods conglomerate that includes many beauty brands, it has a comprehensive palm oil policy that includes a commitment to using RSPO- certified palm oil.

Natura & Co.: Natura & Co., the parent company of brands like Natura, The Body Shop, and Aesop, has been committed to responsible palm oil sourcing.

Please note that the status of RSPO certification can change, and new brands may have adopted
sustainable palm oil sourcing practices. To ensure you are purchasing products from brands with
current RSPO certification, it’s advisable to check the RSPO database or contact the brands directly
for the most current information.


In summary, palm oil’s widespread use in the beauty industry comes with concerns related to
deforestation and environmental impact. However, the industry is taking steps toward sustainability
through initiatives like the RSPO and MSPO certification schemes, as well as commitments from
major brands like Estee Lauder and L’Oréal. These efforts offer hope for a more environmentally
friendly and ethical future for palm oil in the beauty sector.

If you want to learn more about sustainable palm oil, why not take this fun test.

*This is a sponsored post.

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