Palm Oil: Clean Hair or Clean Air?

Palm oil is in a surprising number of household products and food -- and producing it wreaks havoc on the environment.

While showering a few weeks ago, I realized I had run out of conditioner. So I reached up and grabbed my wife's bottle -- Clairol Herbal Essences Rainforest Flowers, "with essences of nourishing palm."

The label caught me slightly by surprise. As an environmental journalist, I've been writing about the ecologically destructive effect of palm oil for some time now.

Whether it's used as an additive in soap, cosmetics or food, or processed into a biofuel, palm oil is one of the worst culprits in the climate crisis. Most of it comes from the disappearing, ultra-carbon-rich rain forests of Indonesia and Malaysia, of which a whopping 25,000 square miles have been cleared and burned to make way for palm oil plantations.

That burning releases enough carbon dioxide into the air to rank Indonesia as the No. 3 such polluter in the world. It also destroys the last remaining habitat for orangutans, Sumatran rhinos, tigers and other endangered wildlife. So what was this deadly oil doing in our otherwise ecologically friendly apartment?

I started to inspect other items on our shelves. Despite our efforts to keep our family green, we'd admitted into our home several products containing palm oil: Burt's Bees soap, chocolate truffles from Trader Joe's, Kashi breakfast bars, Whole Foods water crackers and many others.

Probably the worst offenders were Entenmann's chocolate-covered doughnuts, which actually list palm oil as the first ingredient -- and palm kernel oil as the second. Lots of other products, some of them marketed as "green," contain this rhino-killer too: Oreos, Chewy Chips Ahoy!, Orville Redenbacher's popcorn, Hershey's Kisses "Hugs," Twix and many other processed foods. Even some Girl Scout cookies have it, which is why this spring, 12-year-old Girl Scouts Madison Vorva and Rhiannon Tomtishen of Ann Arbor, Mich., refused to sell the cookies and have encouraged the organization to drop the ingredient.

The great tragedy of all this palm oil use (about 30 million tons globally every year) is that it's so easily replaced by healthier vegetable oils, like canola, that come from significantly less-ecologically sensitive areas. Indeed, every single product I examined had either a variant or a competitor that didn't contain palm oil -- with no discernible effect on price or quality. Sitting next to those Whole Foods-brand water crackers were Haute Cuisine water crackers made with canola oil. Down the aisle from palm-oil laden Ivory soap was palm-oil-free Lever 2000.

Unfortunately, most of the food and cosmetics conglomerates are more interested in covering up the environmental destruction than replacing the problem ingredient. Kellogg's, Kraft Foods, Unilever, Nestle, Procter & Gamble and others (including the Girl Scouts) assure the public that such environmental concerns don't apply to them because they (or their suppliers) are members of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, an industry group (with a handful of environmental members) that sets guidelines on growing and selling palm oil.

Unfortunately, as a recent Greenpeace report revealed, the Round- table's standards are almost meaningless because they don't include inspections of the palm oil tree plantations. The Roundtable plans to address this problem in the next few months by certifying a small amount of oil that it says has been verifiably produced according to some sustainable standards. But even Roundtable Vice President Darrel Webber admits that the process "isn't perfect," in part because liquid oils are easy to mix and nearly impossible to track.

So how can we keep dead orangutans out of our hair, out of our food and out of our gas tanks? Consumers should scan ingredient labels for palm oil and palm kernel oil (and derivatives such as palmitic acid) and choose brands that don't contain them. Wall Street should divest from this ecologically sub-prime market, not only because it's the right thing to do but because its high carbon footprint means that palm oil producers and buyers are likely to be penalized in any scheme to reduce global warming.

But governments must act too. The European Union, for instance, is considering a ban on palm oil and other tropical biofuels. But as my hair conditioner shows, targeting biofuels alone isn't enough: Any ban must extend to food and cosmetics as well.

That may slightly inconvenience the food and cosmetics companies, but at least we'll know that no orangutans died to make our Thin Mints.

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