Breaking the palm oil habit

Those of us that have been paying attention to the plight of Indonesia’s Orang-Utans could easily be forgiven for wondering why anyone would ever buy anything that contained palm oil let alone a cosmetic but they do and for many reasons, an important one being to do with Oleochemicals.  

Natural Cosmetics are made from Oleochemicals.

Oleochemicals: Chemicals derived from natural oils. A process that starts with saponification or soap making!


  • The cosmetic industry accounts for 15% of the global Oleochemical market.
  • 15% of total Palm Oil production goes into Oleochemical production, around 10% of Palm goes into Biodiesel manufacture with the bulk of the remaining oil going into the food industry.
  • Globally by 2010 around 68% of all of the world’s Oleochemicals produced were palm-based.


Oleochemicals can be made from any vegetable source and can even be made from green waste or seaweed.

While it is fair to say that the Oleochemical pie could be made from a number of different oil containing feedstock sources, the preferred choice for at least the last thirty years has been palm with a tiny bit of coconut, canola, castor oil, Sunflower, Soy and some other minor veggie derivatives thrown in for good measure. The dominance of palm is partly to do with the availability and price of the oil but the oils chemistry is also key. Palm oil contains a balanced range of the fatty acids most useful for the multitude of required applications.

Our global appetite for Oleochemicals as a whole has grown exponentially since the 1950’s spurred on by a number of global trends and movements that have relatively little to do with the preferences of the cosmetic consuming public.  As 85% of the Oleochemical market sits outside of the cosmetic industry, it is important to look at what is happening there in order to understand why ‘palm free’ is still so niche and what better place to start than with our bid to be cleaner, greener and healthier inside and out!

Oleochemicals – Palm Changed Everything.

Oleochemicals are important across a wide range of industries including paints and coatings, lubricants, pharmaceuticals, food, cleaning and personal care and as such the industry has existed for as long as people have needed such products en mass.  With that in mind it is of no surprise that there was an Oleochemicals industry before palm, or rather, when palm was only a minor player, one amongst many, but it existed in what now feels to be a completely different time and space. 

Back in the 1950’s the chemical industry had developed sufficiently for it to begin to play a role in our growing consumer-focused culture.  The idea that markets could be global and consumerism could be a unifying world force was still slowly unfolding as the world tentatively relaxed into its post-war stride.  In 1950 vegetable oils accounted for around 60% of the Oleochemical pie with animal fats making up the other 40%.  Of the 60% of Oleochemicals made from vegetable fats only 5.5% was palm derived with the rest a fairly diverse spread of oils, much more so than we typically see today.   Between the 1950’s and 1970’s much of the Oleochemical manufacturing industry was based in the Western world with companies such as ICI and Croda dominating. This made sense given that quite a large percentage of feedstock could be grown or raised locally and the subsequent Oleochemicals used locally. However, that all changed in the early 1980s as the Malaysian economy grew up just as globalism was really hitting its stride!

At the start of the twentieth century the British, who had colonised Malaysia, started to have some success with their rubber plantations after trying and failing with many other crops. The demand for natural rubber skyrocketed as automobiles industries in the West and in particular in the USA boomed so much so that by 1929 the Malaysian economy was outperforming the rest of Asia.  The natural rubber boom continued up until Malaysia gained its independence from the British in 1957 but the good times wouldn’t last forever.  Synthetic rubber was taking over and it was time to find another cash crop to export and that crop was palm.

Farmers across Malaysia ripped out their rubber crops and re-planted palm, a productive, versatile and relatively fast-growing crop and one that, unlike rubber, could feed a growing global population.  By the mid 1970s Malaysia had become the world’s largest producer of palm oil – a time that just happened to coincide with the Wests growing appetite for all things vegetable derived and healthy, trans-fat free and natural.

Before palm took off we were consuming saturated animal fats at a much higher level than we do today and frying oils were commonly tallow based.  The 1970s saw a huge growth in fast food across the western world as lifestyles and family dynamics changed and personal wealth increased but that wasn’t all that grew, our waistlines started to increase faster than ever before and we were getting sick!  The obesity epidemic had begun and this created an opportunity for the health industry and advocacy to grow.  The health industries first target was animal fats, especially those used during frying due to their propensity to form heart-clogging trans fats when repeatedly heated.   Palm oil was the ideal substitute.

Palm oil with its near perfect fatty acid distribution, high stability, easy transportability, low cost and chemical stability when fried – no more trans fats took off as a health food in the west while, at the same time meeting the basic calorie needs of the developing world.

Between 2000 and 2016 the use of palm oil in food has risen from 18 million tonnes to 43 million tonnes and that trend does not look like abaiting, but now, somewhat ironically, a significant proportion of the oil turns up in cakes, fast food, pre-packaged meal options and chocolate rather than more healthier choices.

Palm Oils dominance in the Oleochemical market was aided by the Mad Cow scare of the late 1990’s which, along with growing consumer sentiment for animal-free choices sealed the death knell of Tallow, at least in Europe. By the year 2000 vegetable oils were accounting for 80% of the whole Oleochemical pie with palm being around 23% of that total and a further 23% being made from soyabean with the rest spread over a handful of other oils – coconut, sunflower, canola.   By 2010 the Palm share had grown to 68% of the total edible oils market. From humble beginnings in 1980, Indonesia and Malaysia grew to to dominate the global Oleochemical industry and now account for around half of the worlds production of basic chemicals in this space.  The fact that the lion’s share of oleochemicals produced in the world are produced in a region that dominates the palm oil market mean that finding palm-free up-steam oleochemicals is a game of diminishing returns in spite of growing consumer sentiment for an alternative.

So Palm Free Cosmetics. Where are we up to?

It is fair to say that, we, as a whole cosmetic industry are one of the smaller players in the Oleochemical market but although the industry is small, it is mighy, not least because it can afford to pay a premium for its ingredients.  This, along with the very nature of the cosmetic industry- being non-essential, fashion conscious, innovative and experimental means that while the palm-free offerings may be few and far between now, they will definitely grow, the questions then being ‘but how fast and by how much?’ 

One of the main factors slowing down growth in palm free alternatives is the fact that palm-free is still a minor ‘free from’ claim amongst many in a small segment of a relatively small industry. While the market for natural cosmetics is growing faster than any other segment it is still relatively small. Out of a global industry worth some $600 billion USD, the natural and organic segment is worth some $13 billion – 2% of the total.  But outside of that is another significant issue and that’s the backwardly integrated up-stream ingredient maufacturers.

There aren’t that many cosmetic ingredient manufacturers in the world not least because over the years many smaller players have been gobbled up by the larger ones.  The largest, most successful cosmetic ingredient manufacturers selling the most (in terms of volume) cosmetic ingredients tend to be closely tied to Palm Oil via their supply chains. They might own plantations, own down-stream processers or own a seat on the Round Table of Sustainable Palm Oil.  While this doesn’t mean these companies can’t look at producing palm free ingredients, it is not exactly within their interest to do so and even if they do see an opportunity, their enthusiasm has to be tempered somewhat so as not to destabilise the rest of their business.   Smaller, niche players are less likely to be entwined with the palm industry and as such are more flexible in how they source their oleochemicals and better able to jump on non-palm sources when they arise. Because they are smaller they are less likely to require the volume of the larger players so small batch ingredient manufacturing and limited stocks of palm-free oleochemicals are seen as less of a problem and more of an opportunity.

So where do we sit as cosmetic brand owners/ developers today?

Presently it is possible to purchase quite a range of emulsifiers and a fair number of preservatives that are guaranteed palm free.  These can be used to make moisturisers such as hand creams, anti-ageing products and more.  However, the same can’t be said for the surfactant industry and the ingredients that give us the bubbles or cleaning functionality.

While it is quite feasible to expect to achieve a sales price of $20-$100 per 30ml jar of palm free face cream in some markets and absorb the extra cost of going palm free, it is less likely that someone will pay three to five times more to buy a shampoo or body wash that looks and feels like a ‘normal’ product only it is made from non-palm sources. This is especially true for the haircare market which still relies greatly on synthetic chemicals for its functionality with silicones forming the backbone of most professional formulations.  So, while there are palm-free surfactants around and the number and variety of suppliers and solutions are growing year-on-year, the tighter margins and fickleness of this segment of the cosmetic market make for an altogether more challenging prospect.

Palm Free Cosmetics – A Statement of Values.

While all of the above outlines logical and necessary reasons of why things are as they are, the cosmetic industry does not spin on an axis of logic or necessity.  There are very few cosmetic products that we really need but we want them all the same.  How many times do we choose to purchase a cosmetic product just because we like the colour, packaging, brand name, pack feel or the brand aroma.   This space is where palm-free sits and where it can become more than just symbolic.

After reading this it might have occurred to you that the issue of palm oil isn’t really about palm oil at all, it is about what we value, how we consume, how much we consume, what type of world we want to live in, how much we are prepared to sacrifice for our life choices and how much we can gain from doing things differently – the question is ‘how differently’.  Looking at the facts and figures, seeing how small a piece of the Oleochemicals pie the cosmetic industry is and of that how small the palm footprint is when compared to everything else it can feel like searching for palm oil free is a lot of work for nothing but to feel that is to miss the point completely.  The market for palm oil free cosmetic ingredients may be small today but it will grow and the voices and intentions of the people looking for palm oil free will grow with it, becoming stronger, more direct and more sure of themselves.  Because what we are doing when we seek to buy palm free is supporting a different vision for the future and for the world, a world where the limits of nature are respected,  its resources are prized and celebrated and its value is measured in more than just dollars and cents.

At green habit we see supporting palm oil free as part of our journey, as a way to open up dialogue with our customers and as a way to push the boundaries and encourage change.  We may not be able to produce everything palm free yet but just because we can’t do everything, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do something.

Come with us, the future is now.





sign up for monthly
tips to stay in the green