For most of us, living a sustainable life is important. Our planet is under a lot of pressure as it is, and we can’t support our growing population if we keep leading such wasteful lives. Simple steps such as recycling, using our cars less, and buying local food can all help reduce our impact on the planet. However we rarely consider the impact that our beauty and hygiene routines have on the environment.
Between toxic chemicals, unsustainable ingredients, fossil fuels used, and non-degradable packaging, there is a lot wrong with the beauty industry’s impact on the planet. Fortunately, by being aware of these problems we can reduce our own impact and start to make real changes to the world.
Deforestation, palm oil and ‘natural’ skincare products
Many products that claim to be ‘natural’ use palm oils, but rarely do we see ‘palm oil’ on labels because it is listed often as glycerine, stearic acid or vegetable oils. These oils are inexpensive and durable, so they are used extensively as emulsifiers, cleansing and foaming agents, or even moisturisers. This explains why palm oil is so commonly used in personal care products.
According to research from the union of concerned scientists, “…most palm oil is produced on large industrial plantations, driving tropical deforestation in Indonesia and Malaysia. The harvested area of palm oil in Southeast Asia has tripled in just a decade. In Indonesia, palm oil area grew by 11.5 percent annually from 1997 to 2000, and by 15.8 percent annually from 2000 to 2007.” In late 2015 I travelled with my family to Sabah, in northern Borneo, to witness the severe deforestation and its impact on the wildlife and the local dwellers. The family we stayed with beside the Kinabatangan River shared how wild animals are being pushed away from the trees and towards the banks looking for shelter and food as a result of deforestation. Ironically this allows nature and animal lovers like us easily to see how wildlife lives. In fact, the deforestation of Sabah is at its peak, and as far as you could see, palm oil trees planted by man or burnt trees on bare land are visible all the way to the tip of Borneo. In Singapore, every year we suffer from the hazardous haze blown in thousands miles away from the islands of Sumatra and Kalimantan. It often reaches unhealthy or very unhealthy levels, schools are closed and no outdoor activities are encouraged. Many businesses are also affected during this period. The impact on the local regions is beyond comprehension.
The WWF reported in 2014, “Forests now cover 31% of the planet’s land area, and while over half of the Earth’s forests have been destroyed in the last 10,000 years, the majority fell in the last 50”. Furthermore, collaborative work between the University of Maryland (United States) and Google Earth* reveals that roughly 50,000 square miles of forest are erased every year – the equivalent of 36 football fields a minute. This is a shockingly painful truth, and each and every one of us is responsible.
This impact is due to the fact that palm oil is a monoculture harvested through completely destroying the plant. Palm farms need vast areas of rainforest to be destroyed, and the palms themselves are chopped down very regularly. The same holds true for oils like canola, or sunflower, which take up whole fields, destroying ecosystems. Contrast this with coconut or olive oils, where the plant stays up for many years, creating a hospitable environment for local wildlife. Choosing tree-fruit oils instead of palm oil, canola oil, or sunflower oil when making beauty products and cooking could help the planet. This is important as boycotting palm oil won’t stop deforestation. The landowners will instead move to other farmed goods. By consuming more sustainable crops that can be grown in a natural polyculture environment we encourage landowners to treat their land and the creatures on it with more respect.