Palm oil’s hidden presence in personal care products prompts reform

Consumers are beginning to recognize the huge environmental costs of palm oil use in the packaged foods industry, but what’s less known is how widely the ingredient is used in everyday products sold by the personal care industry. In FERN’s latest story, “The Makeover,” Jocelyn Zuckerman reports on this industry and its attempts to reform its supply chain in a story produced with Vogue Magazine.

Photographer George Steinmetz provided a series of stunning aerial images of palm plantations to illustrate the article.

Zuckerman writes that palm oil is found in “an astounding 70 percent of our cosmetics, where they serve as emulsifiers and surfactants. Thanks largely to its complicated refining and manufacturing processes, the personal-care industry has managed to avoid fallout for any use of ‘conflict palm oil.’ Now, however, as beauty obsessives demand transparency, major brands are beginning to rethink how they source the commodity.”

She focuses on Paris-based L’Oréal, which is supporting a local initiative in Malaysia to help small farmers produce palm oil more sustainably.

Zuckerman says that about 98 percent of the 60,000 metric tons of palm-based derivatives L’Oréal purchases each year comes from Malaysia and Indonesia. If executed successfully, the company’s small farm initiative will help mitigate the side effects of the crop — including deforestation and labor abuses.

That larger goal is one now shared by such companies as Estée Lauder and Colgate-Palmolive. Unilever, which buys more palm oil than most consumer goods conglomerates, and uses it in products like Dove soap and Pond’s cold cream, also recently committed to tracing its entire supply by 2019.