Most of us now know that palm oil is a Very Bad Thing.
And yet our own soap lists palm oil as one of its ingredients. Why and how could a company that prides itself on social and environmental responsibility do this? You may quite rightly ask.
And here is the (longish) answer. Small soap makers such as Aerende (or more specifically, Real Inspiration, the charity that provides employment and opportunities for disabled young people to manufacture our soap), don’t have the luxury of chemists, professional laboratories, expertise and ingredients to work up recipes. For obvious reasons, soap must pass a certain number of safety tests before it can be sold. So, to avoid expensive and time-consuming methods, plus the high chance of getting it wrong multiple times, most small soap sellers buy off-the-peg recipes that are already safety tested and come with variance options for scent, colour and so on, that enable us to make the soap our own.
Despite some searching, we were unable to find a supplier that had high-quality, transparently sourced ingredients but without palm oil. We decided that our next best option was to source our ingredients and safety certifications from a reputable company that only offered sustainable (RSPO-certified) palm oil. So if our palm oil is sustainable, why doesn’t our ingredients list state that on the label (the current wording says Sodium Palm Kernalate)? Well, mainly because there was some uncertainty around what we could legally write on a label when using a pre-safety-approved ingredients list (was it law, we wondered, to publish verbatim or could we add in sustainable in the light of our supplier’s integrity?). You’d think there would be an easy answer but not one that presented itself to us as a certainty. Sometimes, when juggling multiple products in development, multiple makers and all of the things that go with running a small company, a decision just needs to be made, especially when indecision holds up production (and, potentially working opportunities for those who we exist to support). So we went with the stated ingredients list and are using this post to reassure those who worry about greenwashing and integrity or the reasoning behind it.
It has always been a source of concern that our soap contains even RSPO-certified palm oil. It's not a trouble-free certification. So, we have been searching tirelessly for alternatives that would be viable for our small handmade production process. And it was during the course of our research that we uncovered much food for thought. Namely, that there simply is no obvious alternative to sustainable palm oil.
Soya and coconut oil both seemed to have worrying environmental impacts too. Coconut farmers were poorly paid and badly treated, we read. Soya oil was leading to widespread and unregulated deforestation. Olive oil used chemicals and was tricky to work with. The yield of some oils was so much lower than palm oil that fragile ecosystems were being destroyed in higher quantities. Pesticide use was rife. Processing and manufacturing were polluting areas of natural beauty. The energy required to create useable substances was scarily high, particularly when compared with the high yield and level of scrutiny that RSPO-certified palm oil now faces.
We could not find one single article or piece of research that could unequivocally confirm any of the suggested alternatives as better. And it seemed that the very alternatives some people were touting around could actually be worse than the sustainable palm oil we were using. We decided, in the manner of all good 21st-century companies, to ask Twitter and finally got a definitive response from a trustworthy organisation via the brilliant Ethical Hour community (after hearing worrying things about monkey slavery). The Orangutan Land Trust tweeted us to say that the very best alternative to palm oil is sustainable palm oil. As a reputable charity with conservation and the interests of wildlife at its heart, we are happy to trust that the option we are currently using is the best available.
It’s important to recognise that we’re not saying sustainable palm oil is good for the world. Simply that, in the light of the complex interplay of environmental and human effects of all oils, there isn’t a better option for us right now. Many companies advertising products as palm oil-free might be creating as much, if not more, harm with other ingredients. We didn’t want to be one of those organisations, hence this lengthy blog post. And, when faced with difficult environmental decisions, we always come back to our social mission – providing jobs, revenue and opportunities for creative charities and organisations.
One day we’ll be able to afford a chemist or the facilities to explore emerging alternatives that do sound amazing (from an oil created with coffee waste in Scotland to lab grown alternatives). But for now, we hope to reassure everyone that while we are not 100% perfect on the palm oil front, we try to make up for it in the way we make, package and market our soap and in the work and revenue we create for young people with disabilities (80% of whom are out of work) in the process.
We know it’s not a perfect solution. And we won’t accept it forever. But we feel our soap is pretty much as good as it gets, compared with anything else on the UK market – small batch, handmade, minimal airmiles, sustainable, plastic-free, recyclable packaging made and printed in the UK with vegetable inks, essential oil scents that are as delicious as they are safe to use (many palm oil-free formulations we looked at use synthetic fragrances* which have been linked with reproductive issues, certain cancers and kidney damage). You can use our soap with a clean conscience, knowing that we will always be honest about our sourcing, our manufacturing and our constant work to do the right thing.
To find our soap, click here. To read about our soap makers, click here.
* anecdotal evidence from lurking in supermarket and chemist beauty aisles.
Images by Julia Smith (www.humphreyandgrace.co.uk)