palm oil: careful not to throw the baby out with the bath-water

baby bathwater

From Thomas Murner’s satirical work Narrenbeschwörung (Appeal to Fools), c. 1512

Via a certain online discussion forum; identities have as ever been anonymised, and any other editing has been of typos, spelling, etc. so that they don’t detract from the actual content. Some good questions:


1. How hard is it to avoid palm oil?
2. And by any chance is it in mascara?
3. What is a good alternative?

I’ve read that other substitutes are not much better (ex. soy oil) because they also take a lot of land to grow. Help! I do my best to not consume items that have ill effects on the rainforests.

4. Or is it all just hopeless?


baby panda bathing

it’s never hopeless…


check this looooong list of A – Z of alternate names for palm oil


Yes, that’s why I’m wondering if it’s impossible.

5. Do they have a list of things without it?

I’ll google products without it. I’m not sure if cutting a few things would help, even if a million people did it. Damn, reading all that stuff made me hopeless.


Easy answer: I seconded ANSWER 1 above. I didn’t include the following caveats and provisos in the original board discussion:

The Palm Oil Investigations list is absolutely a great and useful list for spotting ingredients that might be palm oil (or a derivative therof). If you see one of these ingredients listed on a product you use, and its source-material is not specified, it is possible that ingredient is derived from (or is) palm oil; and it is possible that the source palm oil is unethical.

Those “possibles” are, however, only that. Cynically / realistically, I would say that unless a manufacturer has specified further information, and especially if their ingredient-listing is inaccurate, then they probably to certainly:

  • don’t know
  • don’t care

They might, in addition, be fudging; for instance by using terms which disguide palm oil as something else. They are certainly showig disrespect for customers: for their intelligence, via the curiosity to ask questions and the ability to read labels; for their right to know what is in a product; for their right to make a proper informed rational independent decision, rather than one based on belief in a company and their sales pitches, marketing propaganda, brand identity, and other cultishness.

Next step: contact the manufacturer and ask them the following questions:

1. Is ingredient [x] palm oil / derived from palm oil?
2. How is that palm oil sourced? What kind of certification does it have? What is its origin, who is your supplier, who is the grower?
3. Can you prove all of the above?

I should also add that the Palm Oil Investigations site has a very good page encouraging consumers to ask questions. As you know, here at Folly-Praising Central we love good solid scepticism, as is right and proper. Here are some splendid starting-points for the art of asking questions: not just regarding palm oil, but in all else in life. Remember, as the good Socrates said, “the unexamined life is not worth living”:


The list needs to be used with care, as it includes a number of ingredients that aren’t necessarily but might be palm oil: “vegetable oil,” for example.

And the same goes for derivatives: common examples would include the whole ceteareth, cetearyl, and cetyl group (originally from whale oil, mostly these days from coconut oil); the capric/caprylic group (usually from fractionated coconut oil); the lauric / lauryl group (ditto); stearic acid and co. (ditto); glycerin.

To be fair, this is not something that is fudged by the POI site; but could be misread or misconstrued.


This is not an impartial information source, pure of all commercial interest. Products are recommended by and can be bought from the site: see their Web Store and Palm Free Product Features.

The inclusion of these products and exclusion of others does not necessarily mean

  • that these are the only products available that are free of palm oil
  • that other products that claim to be, or look, free of palm oil are in fact not
  • that all palm oil products should be avoided,
    either because they are all unethical
    or because their ethics is difficult to impossible to determine
  • that being palm-oil-free is necessarily a good thing
    and that buying palm-oil-free products is an ethically (and practically) better choice than buying products containing ethical palm oil

To be fair, they need to support themselves somehow; for any of you happy people who have never volunteered, may I suggest doing so sometime, as it’s hard work. Emphasis on work: this is an unpaid labour of love. Even though it might make you feel better than slaving away for low pay, and/or selling your soul (values, ideals, self) working for a company who don’t do anything useful and good (or who are even actively useless and bad).


Beware of all prejudices: those of others and your own. You don’t need to accept everything that one information-source says; you can accept and agree with some of it, without there being any obligation to accept and agree with everything.

Case in point for me with POI, but also, as you’ll see further along, with one of the most heinous and most detested of mega-corps around.

And things can change; sometimes for the better; and not always in ways you might expect. I had first heard about palm oil problems and deforestation a while back, in the previous century. Palm oil returned to the news from time to time in the early years of the current century (around 2002, 2004, 2008). I read up a lot about palm oil around 2010-11, going back for example to some classic articles in the Guardian (2010 and earlier; for links, see here) on why a plant-based “more natural” option was not necessarily an environmentally and ethically better one: the case of palm oil vs. mineral oil. Those articles were referred to on this here blog, in posts on mineral oil myth-busting (2011; and over on MakeupAlley various people, not just me, have discussed this for some years, and going some years back). The main post was this one, and it includes links to pertinent Guardian articles going back to 2004 (and other stuff from elsewhere):

But but but: There has been good work done on palm oil issues between 2012 and now, with more progress planned from now through 2020. While I’m not often a praiser of progress as increase and growth (see: the Viagra paradigm), we’ve actually got a really neat case here of progress as decrease and as tending towards a goal of stability, stasis, and sustainability.


My own full-er-ish answer is basically a variation on

  1. do your research
  2. ask companies direct questions, directly, and keep bugging them till they answer
  3. they are answerable, and you do have a choice: you can withdraw your custom
  4. you should feel free to name and shame companies who don’t answer, or don’t do so in a satisfactory way, especially if they tout their green, eco, ethical credentials as part of their brand identity. Because that is HYPOCRISY, one of the highest forms of Folly (Be Praised).
  5. you should also feel free to name and praise companies who do answer–even if it’s not the answer you wanted–and who treat you, their humble customer, in a decent civil way. Because HONESTY (and decency and civility) are virtues deserving of praise.

green wash
Here’s the original version from that discussion board, slightly reformatted for here, hopefully in such a way as to make it a bit better organised and more coherent:

1. 2nd the recommendation of consulting the Palm Oil Investigations list


Why there is no single list of all products without palm oil = because there are too many (millions) of products in existence, worldwide, for this to be possible. Even on any given day. And the list would need to be maintained daily (at least) to cover for changes in formulation and new products.


The good news is that if you’re avoiding unethical palm oil, this does not mean that you need to avoid *all* palm oil. More and more palm oil (and derivatives therefrom) is sustainably ethically sourced, without derainforestation, orang utan eviction, human eviction, slave labour, etc.

More and more, partly because it makes good business sense. Even for big companies. Some of the companies who are doing most for changing palm oil production (and reversing and re mediating their own long histories of damage) are some of the biggest, and longest-term offenders (back to colonial pillaging): Unilever, for example. They were one of the founding members (2004) of one of the main organizations regulating palm oil sustainability, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).

On Unilever and their move to ethical palm oil:


  • Read the ingredients on everything.
  • Then check what each ingredient is, for anything you don’t know (Google, Wikipedia, etc. are a good start).
  • For any product or ingredient that isn’t explicitly ethically-sourced: contact the company who make that product directly to ask them about their palm oil (or palm-derived ingredient) sourcing.
  • Do not buy or repurchase until you have received a clear answer.

My own main source, for companies to support / avoid, is the WWF (= the World Wildlife Fund). Why?


Um, also, because the WWF Palm Oil Buyers Scorecard is accepted by the palm oil industry (ex. Unilever) as the industry standard, even if–and maybe precisely because–it is highly critical of the industry itself. The WWF are an independent NGO. They are not invested (financially, commercially) in palm oil and palm oil products. Their sole commitment is to the protection of wildlife and things associated with it, like habitat. Simple as that, period, full stop.


What the WWF deals with is just one part of the palm oil business. There is more, and other organizations (NGOs, charities, research groups, etc.) are involved too. But this is a decent starting-point for your own research.

Yes, this will mean work, time, and effort. No, it won’t be easy. Yes, it will often be frustrating. Yes, it may well mean giving up some products you really love.

But doing this because you care is good; it’s also good to do your research properly, to make sure that you’re not doing something bad by avoiding all palm oil, because that hurts the good guys who are trying to change things (which might well include some otherwise non-good-guys–historically, etc.–like Unilever).

And doing this is good because it might help you feel better: about yourself, the world, and your place in the world. I hope so anyway 🙂

The WWF information above is useful because you can then ask a company who makes a specific product:

  • Do they know and can they show that their palm oil (and derivatives) is ethically sourced?
  • Do they deal with any of these growers or with agents and intermediaries who do?

A responsible company who actually cares about palm oil will know answers to these questions, and if they don’t, they will find out. If you don’t get a reply, write (on old-fashioned paper, in an envelope) to the company director; find out the contact details, ideally also a name of an actual person, from their company website. If the information isn’t there, it will be somewhere online (just search); I’ve never had to look up public company registers, not in the last 20 years anyway, to locate this sort of information.


Usually, emailing a company works fine in this day and age, and saves paper and so saves trees. But an email can and should still be composed as a proper letter. Seriously, this helps your chances of receiving a proper reply.

Unfortunately, many companies are irresponsible. Of those I’ve dealt with, the worst offenders have all been “greener” ones. They were guilty of some combination of the following:

  • Not knowing where their palm oil was from or how it had been grown.
  • Knowing their palm oil was organic, but not checking by what standards, or anything else about it. “Because organic is the most important thing” was something said to me, which the speaker clearly believed to be an actual serious argument.
  • Not knowing that an ingredient was derived from palm oil.
  • Not knowing where a palm-derived ingredient was from.
  • Knowing who they bought it from, but not knowing and claiming to be unable to trace where, ultimately, it came from (I.e. which grower, way back in the supply chain, on the actual material ground…)

The next thing is worst of all. Sorry, but it happens to me all too often. If the following happens when you ask a company about their palm oil (or anything else), run.

The worst responses I received–worse than not answering at all–were from brands who got annoyed. Not answering a question. Asking how I, a loyal customer, dared question them. Bad attitude: ignorance, incompetence, wilful stupidity, a refusal of intellectual curiosity (ask questions, look stuff up, learn), and being anti-science. You know, the sorts of brands who don’t believe in using preservatives… continuing the bad attitude with a cavalier approach to customers’ health. Arrogant. Imperious. Demanding blind belief and other cultish attitudes in obedient devotees.

I’ve been tempted to name and shame such companies publicly, but the tone they used was a bit scary. Fortunately, there are other more immediate things on which one can recommend against using products from these brands. Like expense and poor formulation.

Another practical thing that could help you: if you find one of your favourite products does contain palm oil (or a derivative), and you know it’s unethical, you can always ask [on online discussion fora] if anyone can suggest an alternative. People [t]here tend to be nice and helpful for that sort of thing, and specifics help for getting a more accurate, immediately useful answer!


1. Bad guys could be good; or at least, less-bad. The world isn’t as black-and-white as the WWF panda logo.

There are now reasons not only for stopping avoiding but for actively seeking out some Unilever products. Also Marmite. Reasons remain for not buying some of their products: promotion of skin-lightening creams, the Dove Real Beauty campaign (which remains an issue; this campaign, and the Greenpeace parody response, were another reason for palm oil being in the news in 2011…), the more heinously misogynist of the Lynx deodorant ads (ex. Australia recently; though the current UK one (Axe) is amusing as a self-parody), and errrrrrm animal testing in some parts of the world.

See also, from The Onion:

From I Blame the Patriarchy:

The original Dove campaign (which, to be fair, has some positives):

The Greenpeace response:

The lesser-known (and, um, slightly, um, ummmish):

More recent Dovery:

…and yet more at the doveunitedstates YouTube channel…

Then, from April this year, this #TRUEBEAUTY from Above Average:

2. Good guys could, similarly, be bad; or at least, less-good.

Read / research everything carefully, and don’t be scared to ask questions. Remember, the bottom line of any company–however green they might be or seem to be–is the bottom line: making money. Making money includes getting new customers and retaining the ones they have, the better to make more money out of them. That includes manipulating customer belief in a brand and its identity.

3. Being ethical includes applying principles of justice and fairness. Equally. To all.

Beware the perils of tarring everything with the same brush, over-simplifying, and other forms of foolish unthinking. Also, of course, this:

baby bathwater

From: The Phrase Finder,

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