When I was an eco-advisor with the company Only Green, I started using these handmade bar soaps that I LOVE. When the company closed, I was really sad about giving up my soap – so I was thrilled to find out that they were actually sourced from a Canadian soapmaker, Cedar Point Soaps. I contacted the owner and was able to re-stock right away, with many more options for flavours. Very exciting! I was happy to be using soaps that were made from all-natural ingredients. Then I started reading about palm oil.

Ecoholic Adria Vasil (of whom I am a HUGE fan, I have all 3 of her books and consult them religiously) wrote about palm oil in her column. The controversy is this: palm plantations are taking over a lot of land that shouldn’t be encroached upon, like rainforest land and peatlands (check out this infographic for a great explanation). There is a Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, which provides certification for palm oil that is produced in sustainable ways. But it seems that “sustainable” is semantically variable in the RSPO, so it might not mean a whole lot to be RSPO-certified. It seems fair trade organic is the closest thing to a guarantee that a product contains truly sustainable palm oil. So – Adria recommends avoiding palm oil altogether, and looking for palm-free brands.

When I contacted the owner of Cedar Point Soaps to ask her about this, she raised an interesting point. She talked about someone who bought a forest/wetland property, cut the trees down, filled in the eco-sensitive wetland, and after many years, turned it into an organic farm. Could this farm really be called organic if we considered the fact that the land used to be a forest/wetland, and this was essentially destroyed to make way for the farm? What if a palm oil plantation started that way, but then went to a replanting program? Would they forever be thought of as eco-unfriendly because of what was there before? Can a grower ever be “rehabilitated” by replanting, or will they always be known as the people who cut down the original forest? Food for thought.

The owner of Cedar Point Soaps states that her palm oil supplier is RSPO-certified and guarantees that it comes from regulated palm plantation land that was not previously rainforest land. Palm oil is an important ingredient for her soaps, as it is used to harden the soap bar and counteract the soft properties of olive oil and coconut oil. So in this case, it may not be feasible to go palm-free.

So – is palm oil bad? Is going palm-free a pre-requisite to being truly eco-friendly and green? I’m still not sure I can answer that question with a yes or a no. I’m still thinking that it depends. Palm oil is found in a lot of stuff, not just bar soaps, so I think it’s reasonable to avoid it in things like food or lotions. It may be tougher to avoid in a bar soap, but there are some brands out there that are palm-free. As with everything, we have to be our own judge of what we can realistically do. I do think that every little decision can help to lead a greener life.

Do you actively avoid palm oil in products?