Sustainable palm oil sourcing throws up challenges

By Katie Nichol

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Palm oil Sustainable palm oil Beiersdorf

With rising consumer awareness over negative social and environmental effects of palm oil production, the cosmetics and personal care industry is under increasing pressure to use palm oil that is sustainably sourced.

Palm oil has become widely used as a low cost, plant-based alternative to animal fats, and is used in cosmetics and personal care products such as lipsticks, soaps, and shampoos. However, sourcing it and its derivatives sustainably is not always straightforward.

“We are still in the early stages of transforming the complex palm oil commodity market,” ​a spokesperson for the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, RSPO, told

“A number of companies have begun using sustainable palm oil, others are in the process of doing so. (It involves getting certified, finding a suitable sustainable palm oil supplier, adapting production, packaging and sales channels, etc).”

Sustainable palm oil pledge

The Body Shop, which announced plans to use sustainable palm oil back in 2007, claims on its website that all of its 7.5m soaps sold annually are now produced using sustainable palm oil.

Consumer goods company Unilever is aiming to have fully traceable supply chains in place in Europe by 2012, and use 100 percent sustainable palm oil by 2015.

L’Oreal, which uses around 600 tonnes of palm oil per year, says all crude palm oil it uses in its products is certified against the segregated sourcing model set out by the RSPO, and the cosmetics giant is now progressing to the complex issue of derivatives.

Complex sourcing issues

While some cosmetics and personal care companies do not directly purchase palm oil, they may use ingredients such as emulsifiers and surfactants that contain palm oil and palm kernel oil.

As Beiersdorf highlights, tracing the origin of palm oil or palm kernel oil used in the production of surfactants or emulsifiers is not straightforward.

“Due to complex supply chains (spot market buying) and trade structures, our suppliers report great difficulties in tracing the source of these materials. To our knowledge, the vast majority of our raw material suppliers are currently unable to identify the exact source of each derivative,”​ a Beiersdorf spokesperson said.

Until its suppliers are able to acquire sustainable palm oil and palm kernel oil, Beiersdorf intends to purchase certificates under the RSPO-endorsed GreenPalm system to offset any use of conventional palm oil, an interim method that is currently used by several cosmetics and personal care manufacturers.

Supply and sales of sustainable palm oil are growing

Both supply and sales of sustainable palm oil are increasing, with 1.28m tonnes sold in 2010, compared to 343,857 tonnes in 2009, according to RSPO figures. The volume of actual RSPO-certified sustainable palm oil on the market was 2.3m tonnes in 2010, up from 1.3m tonnes in 2009.

“In 2011, market uptake will need to grow even faster to keep up with rapidly growing production,” ​said Jan Kees Vis, President of the RSPO's Executive Board

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