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The Palm Oil Debate

It's likely that some folks reading this are palm oil boycotters. We totally understand that you’re doing that because you believe it will help end deforestation. Respect for your conscious purchasing. We love that.⁣⁣ The thing is, some seriously respected ape conservationists don’t agree with the concept of a boycott.⁣ ⁣ Essentially it means something else gets farmed. It doesn’t stop deforestation at all.

At Honua Bars we are incredibly passionate about making sure that all the ingredients going into our bars have as little impact on the planet as possible. This is why we are and will continue to be ardent supporters for the use of Sustainable Palm Oil. 

Boycotting palm oil is NOT the solution. If the market for palm oil disappears, farmers will simply switch to producing an alternative crop, like coconut oil. And due to palm's fast yield and small growing space, alternative crop growth would be on a much larger scale. Thus boycotting palm would lead to more deforestation, not less. By growing oil palms in a sustainable way and following standards, farmers can help to protect the local habitat and the creatures who live there.

We would definitely support avoiding palm oil in products that need neither palm or coconut based ingredients to function. However shampoo bars (and shampoo in general) will always either be made with coconut-derived surfactants or with palm-derived surfactants. Without surfactants it won't clean hair. Coconuts also come from palm trees. So given the choice of palm that is in some way regulated and is pretty land-efficient, vs coconut that has no apparent regulation at all and requires a lot more land, we chose the former.  


When first formulating Honua Bars, we were driven with a missionary zeal to produce a palm oil free bar. However after further research into the topic we realised that to make the greenest choices for the environment we needed to start focussing on sustainability, land management and relative crop yields; rather than simply boycotting palm oil. As a result we: 

  • changed our formulations to include as many RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) sustainable palm derived ingredients as possible, and 
  • ensured that any coconut or colza derived ingredients were obtained from suppliers that can give assurance that the supply chain is not originating in plantations that are cutting down virgin rainforest. 

Palm oil is synonymous with the destruction of rainforest in consumers’ minds, and thus many eco products will proudly market their palm-free status. Popular consumer opinion seems to hold the simplistic view that palm oil derived ingredients = bad for the environment, and that coconut or colza derived ingredients = good for the environment. This is definitely what we thought. However, like many things, the truth is a little more complicated than that. 

It is certainly true that sometimes the production of palm oil is unscrupulous and leads to the destruction of virgin rainforests in places like Borneo and Indonesia, destroying the habitats of wild animals.

However palm oil is a very high yielding crop; what this means is that you get more oil from the same amount of land than another crop would. For example, a hectare of palm oil plantation yields twice as much palm oil than an equivalent hectare of coconut plantation would supply in coconut oil. (A coconut tree is a type of palm tree, but not all palm trees are coconut trees)

As consumers start to avoid palm oil and demand alternatives such as coconut with their spending decisions, the need for coconut plantations will increase. The unscrupulous companies who were tearing down rainforests for palm will start tearing it down for coconut instead; except now they will need to tear down twice as much. 

Initiatives like RSPO sustainable palm certification are far from perfect. It's a good start, but we acknowledge that there is a long way to go. Part of the problem is that palm is consolidated at the wholesale merchants, making it hard to separate out one farmers crop from another. But the more we as consumers and manufacturers support sustainable initiatives over unsustainable ones, the more progress we will see. 

What's more, leading environmental groups and figures such as the WWF* and David Attenborough** do not support palm boycotts. 

Currently only 3 of our ingredients are palm oil derived, and they are of course all from RSPO certified sustainable palm. As Honua Bars grows and our ability to access ingredients and scrutinise supply chain improves, we hope to increase this number, so that we are using more ingredients derived from RSPO sustainable palm and less from other lower-yield crops. We use two wholesalers for our RSPO palm, coconut and colza derived ingredients; both of whom only use ethical plantations in their supply chain. The first wholesaler sources from suppliers “using well-established plantations, many of which would have been converted from existing rubber plantations over two decades ago... and has no contracts with plantations in Borneo or Sumatra.” And in the words of our other wholesaler: “if they aren’t ethical, we don’t use them”. 

As consumers you can play your part by checking ingredients and choosing brands that A) are transparent with the derivations of their ingredients and B) use RSPO sustainable palm oil wherever possible. 

You can check the Ingredients section of our website for a full rundown of all the ingredients used in Honua Bars and the derivation of every one of them. 

Together, bit by bit, we can change the world!  

Still reading? Congratulations, you’ve levelled up and can now regale your friends with your newfound palm oil expertise. 


A fantastic article which succinctly outlines why we shouldn’t simply boycott palm oil:

Quote 1: “A panel regression study indicated that RSPO certification reduces deforestation significantly (~33%), but with only 20% of the world’s palm oil producers being certified, there is significant room for improvement.”

Quote 2: “The answer isn’t banning palm oil. Changing perceptions is difficult, and I don’t expect it to happen overnight. The root of the problem runs deeper than that. We need to realise that the impetus doesn’t lie with the farmers, governments or even the manufacturers. It lies with our demand, and only by changing that can we influence the way palm oil is produced, and in a few years, I hope to see the ‘palm oil-free’ labels changed to ‘sustainably-sourced palm oil’.”

Another great article, from one of our suppliers; it is an absolute must read:

Quote 1: “Our supplier sources and procures Palm Oil from well-established plantations, many of which would have been converted from existing rubber plantations over two decades ago. As such, there are no implications of present or planned rainforest destruction in these areas. Our supplier has no contracts with plantations in Borneo or Sumatra for the supply of Palm Oil.”

Quote 2: “The simple answer is that the problem is one of sustainability. The more complex answer involves oil return per hectare planted, natural limits to growth, education and land management.”

A balanced article which neatly explains the shortcomings of alternatives to palm oil:


A discussion on palm oil by Emma Napper, Producer on Seven Worlds, One Planet and Deyá Ward from the Orangutan Alliance:

* why-palm-oil-boycotts-are-not-as-helpful-as-they-might-seem