Having recently become a vegetarian, I am forever on the look out for more ways to make my lifestyle more eco-friendly. Food can be tricky; I’d really like to be a vegan but my body and mind aren’t ready to make the jump. With cosmetics, on the other hand, I don’t feel I can justify buying anything that damages wildlife or the planet. Make-up, haircare and cosmetic products are trivial things; they are a luxury and we don’t need them to survive.
Due to this, I’ve been on a little mission to get rid of the unethical products in my cosmetic routine. I am consciously avoiding palm oil in all food and cosmetics because of the devastation it’s causing in south east Asian rainforests. These rainforests are being torn down at an alarming rate in order to plant palm plantations. Although alternatives are still being debated, the situation has to slow down before their entire landscape is destroyed.
I’ve always loved buying from Lush because they have taken palm oil out of all their products. I then decided to visit the Body Shop too as they have a reputation for being ethical, and I foolishly didn’t think twice before buying raspberry body butter. When I got home, I checked the ingredients and realised it was full of palm oil! I decided to write to them and express my concerns, and ask what they were doing to keep palm oil out of their products. Here is what I wrote:
I am writing to you as a loyal Body Shop customer with concerns about the ingredients in some of your products. I have been thinking very hard about how to change my cosmetic choices to help our environment and dwindling wildlife. After careful consideration, I decided to start buying my cosmetics from two stores: Lush and the Body Shop. I believed both of these stores to be ethical about where they sourced their products, and I could find all my cosmetics needs in both.
However, very recently I bought a tub of your ‘Early Harvest Raspberry Body Butter’, as I have dry skin and your body butter has always been one of my favourite products. I was very upset to find that it contains Ethylhexyl Palmitate, which is derived from palm oil. Being a supposedly ethical company, I’m sure you must be aware of the terrible things happening in Indonesia, and the orangutans that live there are rapidly losing their homes and dying horrific deaths as their trees are being felled by powerful machines.
Palm oil is not a necessary ingredient in anything, and alternatives can easily be found. I recently spoke to Divine, the ethical chocolate company, who do not use palm oil in any of their products. They mentioned that in their caramel bar, palm oil would have been the go-to ingredient to make the caramel soft and squidgy. They admitted that it had taken some time, but they had succeeded in finding a perfect palm oil substitute. I have tasted their caramel bars, and they are absolutely top notch.
I’m aware that many companies claim they use ‘sustainable’ palm oil, and perhaps this is what you believe you are using. However, in Greenpeace’s report Cooking the Climate, they discovered that ‘sustainable’ palm oil can be just as dangerous as uncertified palm oil. Many of the large businesses like Cadbury’s Tesco and Unilever who are members of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) are taking no steps to avoid the worst practices associated with the palm oil industry, and deforestation continues at an alarming rate. There have also been examples of land being taken from natives without consent in order to plant palm crops.
I believe you to be an ethical company, and I would still like to buy cosmetics from you. However, I cannot consciously help a business to profit from these kinds of practices, and I have started looking elsewhere. Are you aware of the consequences of palm oil production? Have you looked into changing your ingredients?
After a long, long wait, I finally received a response to my enquiry. Rather than an informed reply addressing the individual concerns in my letter, I was disappointed to receive a generic ‘palm oil response’, which they obviously hand out to anyone who questions their ethics. It’s one of the most blatant displays of poor customer service I’ve ever seen, and has made me completely rethink my attitude toward the company. Here is their enlightened response:
Thank you for your letter. Palm oil is one of the world’s most popular vegetable oils, used in thousands of everyday products, from margarine to lipstick and is consumed by over a billion people across the world. It is also a common ingredient in many of our products, like our soaps. Indonesia and Malaysia are home to 90% of the world’s palm oil and 100% of the world’s orangutans. The rainforest in Borneo has halved in size and where once 300,000 orangutans roamed the earth, 50,000 now struggle for survival. If this continues, orangutans will be extinct in 12 years. Clearing forests for palm oil plantations deprives local communities of their livelihood, and sometimes forces them off the land.
We were the first retailers to join the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), which is changing the way palm oil is traded. Several palm oil plantations are now in the process of meeting the new international standards we have helped to set up through the RSPO so the way they produce palm oil is far less damaging socially and environmentally. In 2007 we started using sustainable palm oil in our soaps.
We are pleased to inform you that since 2011, 100% of the unmodified palm oil use in the Body Shop products has been certified sustainable by the RSPO. Our supplier, based in Papua New Guinea, has been certified by RSPO. The Body Shop’s soaps contain the largest percentage of sustainable palm oil out of all our products. Soon, all soaps at the Body Shop will display the RSPO logo on the packaging, as a way of raising the profile of this important not-for-profit accreditation association. I hope this answers your question.
May we thank you for your interest in the Body Shop online and we look forward to serving you again in future.
Dusan Kovacevic, UK Customer Relations
So what questions have they actually answered in this letter? They have ignored my question about considering alternative ingredients; they have ignored my question about the effectiveness of ‘sustainable’ palm oil and the RSPO. They don’t even seem to have read my letter, as they have quoted facts and figures back at me that I have already mentioned, as if I didn’t know about deforestation and the RSPO.
Although I would be foolish to discredit an entire organisation based on one letter, this is merely the icing on the cake. They have been the centre of controversy in recent years when they were part-bought by L’Oréal, who have a history of animal cruelty and anti-semitism. When I read things like the Wash your Hands of Palm Oil campaign at Lush, and see how much effort they are putting into creating beautiful, ethical products, why should I give my time and money to a company that can’t even be bothered to send me a genuine letter?
I will no longer be shopping at the Body Shop, and I encourage you to do the same. I am also very excited to announce that I am currently constructing an ethical food and cosmetics list, which will become a permanent page on my blog. If you are keen to buy products that are kind to the planet, watch this space!