Monday, October 10, 2011

The Search for Sustainability in Soap Making


Sustainability means “to endure.” A sustainable business is a company that leaves no negative impact on the global or local environment, community, society, or economy. The business strives to ensure that all processes, products, and manufacturing activities adequately address current environmental concerns and that it “meets the needs of the present world without compromising the ability of the future generations to meet their own needs.”

In this article, we will talk about sustainable oils and butters. Of course, you may be thinking to yourself that you already have a business that is sustainable, or eco-friendly. Perhaps you make 100% natural products, wrap them in 100% recycled materials, and you donate 10% of your profits to your favorite “green” charity. While that is all well and good, there are some important facts you should know about the oils and butters you currently may be using in your products and the potentially destructive impact of these ingredients on the environment or economies of other countries.

Orangutans, Tigers, and Rhinoceroses

Palm oil, coconut oil and palm kernel oil are edible plant oils derived from the fruits of palm trees. Palm oil is extracted from the pulp of the fruit of the oil palm; palm kernel oil is derived from the kernel (seed) of the oil palm, and coconut oil is derived from the kernel of the coconut. Palm oil is a basic source of income for many farmers in South East Asia, Central and West Africa, and Central America. It is used as cooking oil, can be found in many commercial food and personal care products and is converted into biofuel. It produces up to 10 times more oil per unit area as soybeans, grape seeds or sunflowers. It is a common oil used in making cold-process soaps, especially because it makes the soap hard, which is a desirable trait in a quality product.

However, palm oil is under increasing scrutiny in relation to its effects on the environment, especially in Indonesia and Malaysia. The rising demand of this oil world-wide is spurring farmers to not only harvest all of the palm plantations, but also the neighboring rainforests. In addition to deforestation, this land clearing is wiping out rainforest habitats. And if that isn’t bad enough, the common practice after stripping the land is to burn the fields. While burning fields to prepare and fertilize the land isn’t an uncommon farming practice, the burns taking place on or near rainforests are uncontrolled and further wipe out habitats and kill wildlife.

Several critically endangered species most affected by the deforestation and field burning are the orangutans, the Asian rhinoceros, and the Sumatran tiger. In the soap making circles of blogs and forums, you may have read about fellow soap makers who have stopped using palm oil in an effort to save orangutans, which in 1997-98 a devastating fire killed almost 8,000 of orangutans in Borneo, but they are certainly not the only endangered species that is at risk in the palm oil crisis.

Do NOT Stop Using Palm Oil

That’s right, do not stop using palm oil, at least do not stop simply to save endangered species. Boycotting is not the answer, especially since you would have to boycott an awful lot of products and companies. It is found in cookies, crackers, frozen dinners, shampoo, lotions, cosmetics, soaps, pet food, and many other products. Palm oil is now the most widely produced edible oil. It is also found in a wide array of products sold in natural food stores, and it is being used as a possible fuel alternative. It’s even found in chocolate. When the palm oil crisis was brought to NestlĂ©’s attention, the company sought out a sustainable alternative. Instead use certified sustainable palm oil.

Why is using certified sustainable palm oil better than boycotting its use?

• Because palm oil makes 10 times the amount of oil per unit area as soybeans, grape seeds or sunflowers, it is actually more environmentally friendly to use because of this.

• Poverty stricken Indonesia and Malaysia rely on palm oil for their economies. Boycotting would devastate these communities rendering many people unemployed.

• If you boycott one type of oil, another will just take its place. Whereas using a sustainable oil is a win-win situation.

Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil

The palm oil crisis is not new. In fact, environmentalists have been concerned since the 70’s. As the situation worsened with the increased population world-wide and an increase in production by 43% in the 90’s, it became apparent that an alternative solution was necessary. Hence, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was born in 2004.

According to the RSPO website…

RSPO is a not-for-profit association that unites stakeholders from seven sectors of the palm oil industry - oil palm producers, palm oil processors or traders, consumer goods manufacturers, retailers, banks and investors, environmental or nature conservation NGOs and social or developmental NGOs - to develop and implement global standards for sustainable palm oil.

RSPO certifies producers and processors in the palm oil industry. They have created a strict set of guidelines for palm oil producers to prevent negative environmental impacts and promote fair trade. Participating companies undergo regular audits. Sustainable palm oil is handled by producers and processors that are certified through RSPO from start to finished product and is completely traceable by the RSPO, so you know that you are getting a completely sustainable oil. Additionally, many of the sustainable palm oil plantations are also certified organic, which is an added plus.

So now where do you find RSPO certified sustainable palm oil? While other suppliers may in fact offer sustainable palm oil, two soap supply companies that have openly stated they carry the certified oils are Cibaria Soap Supply and Soaper’s Choice/ Columbus Foods. You can check with your favorite supplier to find out if they offer RSPO certified sustainable palm oil. If they don’t, you should request that they do.

To learn more about certified sustainable palm oil, visit

Women of West Africa

Besides helping the environment by purchasing oils that do not promote deforestation or the destruction of habitats, helping under developed countries obtain fair wages for ingredients needed for your products is another positive approach to developing a sustainable business. Remember that you need the farmers/ gatherers, processors, and more to get the ingredients you need to make your products. Sustainability is not only about going paperless and recycling, but also creating a fair trading system to sustain or build other economies.

One such organization has made it their mission to establish a fair trade system with the African women who make shea butter. Alaffia Sustainable Skin Care is one of a several places that offers certified fair trade shea butter. The following was quoted from their website ...

To Alaffia, fair trade means paying a fair price or wage in the local context, providing equal employment opportunities, engaging in environmental sustainable practices, providing healthy and safe working conditions, being open to public accountability, and reducing the number of middlemen between producers and consumers. We believe fair trade should be environmentally, economically and culturally sustainable and give local communities the opportunity to self empower.

According to Alaffia, unrefined shea butter is a valuable natural resource for West Africa, however, most shea butter on the market in the United States and Europe is not fairly traded. Without fair trade, the women who gather shea nuts and hand craft this rich butter receive only a tiny fraction of the final price.

It is estimated to take 20 to 30 hours of labor to produce one kilogram of handcrafted shea butter, which is traded at $1 or less in today's market. A woman making shea butter in West Africa will receive only a fraction of this price. Therefore, a person working for 30 hours will not receive even a dollar for her efforts. Even if she received the whole dollar, this does not even begin to reach living wage standards.

As part of the Alaffia fair trade system, the women who provide their shea butter gain a higher pay and better working conditions. The price of the butter is higher, but the purpose is to pay a fair price and relieve some of the poverty in West Africa.

• Alaffia pays 15-25% above market price for shea nuts

• Their cooperative members receive a salary that is more than 4 times the average family income in Togo

• Cooperative members also receive full medical care, employment security, and one paid month of vacation each year

• Additionally, Alaffia does much for the communities including a Bicycles for Education program

Alaffia is not the only company that offers fairly traded shea butter. A quick search on the internet will reveal quite a few. Be sure to choose one that has certified fair trade products, as independent auditors regularly visit the areas to be sure that all of the rules of fair trade are followed, including safe working conditions and no child labor.

Final Thoughts

As the world continues to grow, it is the responsibility of its people to work together and take care of it and each other. You may not realize how something that seems so small can impact another so greatly, like buying RSPO Certified palm oil to prevent the extinction of several animal species, or purchasing Certified Fair Trade shea butter to help provide a fair wage to women in a poverty stricken area of the world. Little things do matter. So perhaps this article will inspire some of you to look into other oils, butters, essential oils, etc., and be sure that you are purchasing ingredients for your products that are sustaining the world.

Bath Alchemy by The Bonnie Bath Co.


  1. I found this to be most informative and thank you so much for taking the time to do the research needed and for writing this topic so well.

  2. What a great read and thank you for putting in the positives on such a controversial topic. I am all for supporting and educating people on sustainability and fair trade.


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