As part of the enormous cosmetics industry even small scale 'natural' soapmaking by hand raises many ethical questions for those of us concerned about the environment, people, wildlife and the future of life on the planet we inhabit. From soapmaking oils and essential oils for scent, to equipment and packaging materials, the choices we make have implications one way or another along the line. Let's look at two of the best soapmaking oils, palm oil and coconut oil, as examples.
Coconut and palm grow in tropical environments and are often farmed by poor, small-scale subsistence farmers. Of the two, coconut is the more sustainable because it has far greater longevity and most parts of the tree can be utilised. Environmentally it is the least damaging and can be planted mixed in amongst other crops. In contrast, only the kernel and fruit of palm can be used, non-organic production involves extensive pesticide use and it is planted in palm-only plantations.
Palm oil, widely used in food, confectionery and, to a lesser extent cosmetics, gained notoriety some time ago because the sheer volume of its production is causing major destruction of rainforest in South East Asia and latterly, Brazil. This is exacerbating climate change whilst taking orangutans, who only live in the wild in South East Asia, to the brink of extinction. Meanwhile in Brazil it is threatening both the lives of animals and Indigenous people. An effective campaign has ensured many people know about this so eco conscious individuals boycott products containing palm ingredients. On the other hand, countries such as Columbia in South America have taken advantage of the controversy to promote sustainable production of palm oil on land that hasn't been taken from rainforest. This is where the organically grown palm oil I use in my soap comes from, and it's sustainably grown with ethical methods used in its production.
More recently coconut oil has become much more widely available and is being promoted as a health food and as a beauty ingredient. Although total coconut oil production is considerably lower than that of palm oil, as demand for it grows pressure for increased output is beginning to lead to loss of rainforest in some areas, and there are additional negative impacts elsewhere along the production lines. Additionally, in areas of Thailand monkeys are still being trained to pick coconuts and kept in chains when not working. The coconut oil I use comes from another country which doesn't harvest coconuts in this manner.
I use palm and coconut oils in my soap bars because they are both high in saturated fats which makes them excellent for soapmaking. In soap they act as cleansers and give hardness to bars, making them long lasting. Palm oil creates small creamy bubbles and coconut good large ones, but of the two coconut is the greater cleanser with a tendency to be drying as a result when used on its own in soap. In my soaps, which are available here, the inclusion of olive and castor oils more than makes up for any dryness from the coconut oil.
Although it's possible to make soap without palm or coconut oils the question then to be asked is whether the other soapmaking oils are produced without damage to the environment. A quick glance at one of my suppliers shows a wide range of oils and butters that I know to have ethical dilemmas associated with them. Whether to do with the mass harvesting of wild crops, mechanical harvesting which kills insects en masse, pesticide use or exploitation of humans, there are quandaries at each turn. Some are more straightforward to resolve than others but decisions must be made with the resources available to us at the time. Bearing that in mind and given that it's impossible to disentangle from mass industry in one form or another, my aim for Bones loves Bubbles is to make products that are as eco-friendly and ethical as possible with the resources available to me. That allows room for improvement and I look forward to including greener and fairer ingredients in my products for you to enjoy in future.