Palm oil is a type of vegetable oil. Vegetable oils – which also include oils like coconut oil and olive oil – are used widely as chemical feedstock. They are purified or treated to produce other chemicals that are used in a wide range of applications, including personal care products.
Palm oil is extracted from the fruit of oil palms, which are grown tropical countries. Compared to other vegetable oils, palm oil is cheap and demand for it is high. The high demand has prompted palm oil growers to expand their operations. Unfortunately, many have cleared rainforest to do so. This has destroyed the habitat of endangered species (including orangutans), reduced biodiversity and contributed to climate change.
However, palm oil can be harvested sustainably and provide income in developing countries. Palm oil is also one of the highest yield vegetable oil crops, requiring less production land per tonne of oil. Indiscriminately avoiding palm oil can simply shift demand to other vegetable oils, where the environmental impacts can be be higher and market expansion is less clearly documented. Because the environmental impacts of palm oil are so well known, there are organisations which certify palm oil sources as sustainable.
The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) is the best known certification body for sustainable palm oil. Looking for RSPO certified palm oil is one of the best ways to support sustainable palm oil production and reduce the environmental impact of your personal care product purchases. For more information on palm oil and certification, visit the RSPO website.