Dr. Bronner's

Making Ethical Palm Oil a Reality

Palm oil

I hear your outrage, and I commend you for it.   

It shows you’re paying attention. You’re aware of the grievous injury done to planet, animal, and people for the sake of palm oil production: deforestation, habitat loss for endangered speciesand gross land mismanagement.    

You’ve been misled and disillusioned by companies who said they’d foster change and source their palm from ethical sources. And then they didn’t. I get why you might not trust one more company.   

Nonetheless, in the Dr. Bronner spirit of flouting naysayers and doubters alike, we have found a way. It’s not just a good way or an acceptable way. It’s a gorgeous way, involving exciting concepts like dynamic agroforestry and regenerative organic agriculture. Intercropping, biodiversityreforestation (did you read that right? RE-forestation!), habitat restoration, soil revitalization, carbon sequestration.   

All these great words make my heart race! It’s hard to keep my hands on the keyboard here. 

Yes, I am tackling your cynicism! I invite you to examine us closely. Look at the evidence. Ask questions.  

With any ingredient, it’s not what you grow, but how you grow it. As my brother Mike says, an ingredient such as palm oil is not evil, but the way that it is produced can be.  

Shunning palm oil is not the answer. The problem here is bad farming practices. Not bad palm oil. If we merely shun palm, then another oil will rise to take its place, and the bad farming practices will continue. We must reform the farming.  

Why palm oil? 

Palm oil is incredibly versatile, used widely in food, body care, and biofuels. It comes from an oil palm tree, native to western Africa, but transplanted worldwide in tropical regionsBecause of its versatility, palm is the most common vegetable in the world. It is also a very dense crop, producing more oil per hectare than any other type of plant oil.    

Summary of the problem with palm oil

More than 85% of the world’s palm oil comes from Indonesia and Malaysia, where deplorable methods cause widespread deforestation and profound loss of unique jungle habitats, pushing many animal species nearer to extinction. On the human cost side, large scale plantations displace family farmers and forest dwellers, and farm workers experience intensive chemical exposure as well as low-crop yields.   

Palm oil vs. palm kernel oil—one tree, two different ingredients 

When it comes to oil from an oil palm tree, there are two possible products: palm oil or palm kernel oil. Palm oil is pressed from the reddish-yellow fleshy fruit. Palm kernel oil is from the seed at the center of the fruit. Palm oil is highest in palmitic and oleic fatty acids. Palm kernel oil is highest in lauric and myristic fatty acids. Fatty acids are what make up a soap molecule, along with an alkali like sodium or potassium. Because these two ingredients come from the same tree, ethics and sustainability discussions for one ingredient are the same as for the other.

Dr. Bronner’s, palm oil & palm kernel oil  

Palm oil is in Dr. Bronner’s Pure-Castile Bar Soaps where it produces a hard soap that doesn’t become mushy in water. It also produces a smooth and creamy lather that is gentle on the skin. Because of the absence of truly ethical palm oil sources, we created our own palm oil project in Ghana, a mill called Serendipalm, to buy from smallholding farmers. More on that below. 

Palm kernel oil (PKO) is in Dr. Bronner’s Pure-Castile Liquid Soap, alongside coconut and olive oils. Because the fatty acid profile of coconut and palm kernel oils are so similar, they are interchangeable in soapmaking, where they produce an identical rich and copious lather. Our PKO comes from Natural Habitats, an organization in Ecuador that is also certified to the Fair for Life Certification Programme.

Why Dr. Bronner’s & Serendipalm aren’t RSPO Certified 

RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) does good work in ruling out the most egregious abuses in the industry, and they are having a positive impact. RSPO is mostly from plantation stock, rather than from aggregated small scale producers, so it’s not the most rigorous or just certification in terms of fair trade, although in general it is less expensive for companies to buy than certified organic and certified fair trade. Dr. Bronner’s organic and fair trade certified palm oil goes beyond what RSPO ensures in terms of sustainability. 

What excites me about Serendipalm—Dr. Bronner’s sister project  

Even if there wasn’t this horrible situation on the other side of the world, I would be excited about Serendipalm. Serendipalm is a Dr. Bronner’s partner, small-scale palm oil mill near Asuom, Ghana, certified to the rigorous Fair for Life Certification Programme. What has been done there is so good. It’s a testament to people’s hard work, tenacity, ingenuity, resourcefulness, compassion, daring, and ability to see possibility in the midst of problem. It’s novel. It’s risky. And it’s working.   

Serendipalm is about people working with people. The mill itself employs over 200 people, mostly women, assuring them consistent work in a safe environment with unprecedented compensation. The Ghanian team, led by General Manager Safianu Moro and assisted by Dr. Bronner’s Special Ops team led by Dr. Bronner’s VP Gero Leson, has walked more than 600 small holder family farmers through the extensive process of organic and fair trade certification. Farmers are paid fair prices plus an organic premium for their palm fruits; provided with biomass for mulching; training on organic agriculture to improve soil fertility and profitability; and offered interest-free loans for more productive oil palm seedlings. Throughout it all, farmers maintain full ownership of their land. This is all about revitalizing existing farmland.   

Because fair trade certification includes a 10% premium paid into a community development fund, whole communities benefit. A team of local people decide on where this money will go. So far in Asuom, the Serendipalm community fund has built a maternity ward and nurse’s quarters, bridges, public toilets, and water systems; provided bed nets for the community, as well as lighting, and school supplies. Currently, they’re building a Montessori preschool which will be part of the campus of the “Regenerative Learning Center of Ghana,” an NGO founded by Serendipalm and Dr. Bronner’s and aimed at helping people, land, and their communities redevelop.  

This is how fair trade sees people as whole people. Not just employees who exist for the hours they’re on site. But rather as whole people with lives and families and passions. Employees who are overall healthier and happier build a stronger company. The benefit comes full circle.   

Dynamic agroforestry 

This method of farming uses nature as its teacher. Nowhere in nature do you find monoculture. This is the opposite of modern farming practices that clear land and then replant with one crop. Serendipalm teaches the farmers to follow nature’s lead and intercrop the palm with other species. 

Palm oil

The lovely irony here is that this dynamic agroforestry was done to benefit the oil palms, so they would be healthier and heartier, bearing more fruit and needing less human input. The biodiversity builds soil nutrients, decreases evaporation and blocks weeds. However, the crops used to create this biodiversity – citrus and cacao – have given the farmers two more marketable crops. So, from the exact same acreage, the farmers are not only enjoying increased palm fruit yield but are also profiting from selling the citrus and cacao. This is like a triple win and more.  

The land is benefiting. The plants are benefiting. The indigenous animals are benefiting. The health of the workers is benefiting from the lack of chemical input. The community is benefiting from the 10% fair trade community-betterment premium.  

On top of all that – hold on to your hats for this one – all that biomass is grabbing massive amounts of carbon out of the air and putting it back in the soil. This is called carbon sequestration. Do you know what this means?  We’re not just talking about palm anymore. We’re talking about nothing less than reversing climate change.   

This is beyond gorgeously lovely! I want to SHOUT it at you. But I won’t. Because WRITING IN ALL CAPS is rude.  

In-house oil refining—taking things one step further 

More good news. Dr. Bronner’s always looks to do things better. Currently, we are bringing our oil refining in-house, reducing the travel burden of our palm and olive oils. Fresh-pressed palm oil is a gorgeous, deep red. However, this color doesn’t translate well when it goes through saponification. Previously, our palm oil traveled from Ghana to the Netherlands for refining at an organic oil refinery and then to the U.S. Now we bypass that leg, saving fuel, time, cost, and oil loss. It’s more efficient all the way around. 

Call to action 

Encourage other users of palm to demand truly ethical palm oil. The supply of this truly ethical palm oil is small at the moment, though growing. Serendipalm is already supplying more than just Dr. Bronner’s. They also supply GEPA and Rapunzel, two leading European fair trade companies. The more demand there is for such high quality oil, the more the supply will rise. Join in. Vote with your purchases. Talk about it. There’s so much attention to all the problems, but little talk about a workable solution. Here is a workable solution. Get the word out. 

Want to know more? 

This has been mostly an emotional exclamation. (Yes, I meant exclamation.) Greater detail on these palm projects is provided already on several Dr. Bronner’s channels. Please dive deeper: 

This list is long, reflecting how much time, energy, and resources Dr. Bronner’s devotes to it. Dr. Bronner’s is about changing the way business is done. Paving the way for others to follow. In the scheme of world business and world consumption, we’re a small contributor. But if we can convince others to follow our lead, then significant transformation is possible.  

Further reading

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Jesse says:

I get the impression Dr. Bronners favors the “ethics” of bar sourcing over those of liquid sourcing. Palm oil and its sourcing gets far more space on the website (including but not limited to this post) than PKO. This is even though PKO products (e.g., the traditional liquid) involve a different carbon footprint to carry, and packaging re-use (as opposed to single-use papers) could be a factor as well. Has PKO become Dr. Bronners’ less favored component?

Lisa Bronner says:

Hi Jesse – Excellent reading of ingredients and thinking through the issues. You are right that there’s a lot more said about palm oil (which is in our bar soaps) than palm kernel oil (which is in our liquid soaps). That’s for a couple reasons. First off, in response to customer concern, there’s a whole lot more said in the media and documentaries about palm oil, so we’re responding to that. We also like to chatter about our own sister company Serendipalm in Ghana, because it has achieved so much and we are very proud of it. We purchase our palm kernel oil from reputable outside sources, but you’re right that we don’t give them as much air time. The issues around palm and PKO sourcing are really the same. They come from the same fruit/same tree, though they have different fatty acid profiles (PKO is very similar to coconut oil) and one is more conducive to hard soap (palm) and the other to liquid (PKO). Milling them takes different processes and equipment. (Serendipalm is only set up to process palm oil, and not palm kernel oil.) But issues related to land management and habitat preservation are the same. Because we sell so much more liquid soap than bar soap, we do use more PKO and that’s not shrinking.

You also bring up packaging concerns. That is definitely on the forefront of our efforts and innovation. It is not a simple problem. It can’t be solved by “just using aluminum” or “just using glass.” We are actively working on refill stations and have a few in trial at the moment. Please read more about our approach to the issue here:

Harris says:

I have used your products on ad off since college ( Hippie Days!) Lisa I love your knowledge based e mail. Now I will try to use your soaps more often. Thank you so much for your enlightening e-mail.

Lisa Bronner says:

Thank you so much, Harris. I’m so pleased to hear my newsletters are of interest to you! And my family thanks for your many years of support!

Jesse says:

I thank you for this detailed explanation. It will surely help us decide about the very many products we use that contain “palm [something]”. It will help us pick and choose among Dr. Bronner’s products. In our very simple-minded ways we truly do try to make a tiny difference. I suppose no one drop thinks it caused the flood…

Renee Smith says:

To Who it May Concern,
I am allergic to coconut. Do you have an alternative Castillo Soap that I can use which does not have coconut in the ingredients? Please help me.

Thank you,

Lisa Bronner says:

Hi Renee- No, unfortunately not. Coconut oil is a core ingredient of our Castile Soaps. Best wishes finding an alternative.

Jane Lapointe says:

Thank you for answering this question. I was looking for another castile soap without any form of palm oil until I read your response here. I will continue to buy Dr. Bronner’s because of your social and ecological commitments even though your prices are higher. Putting my money where my mouth is.

Lisa Bronner says:

Thank you, Jane. I’m glad you’re in sync with all that we’re doing here. I hope that the higher concentration of the soap and the many dilutions make your purchase go a long ways.

Jeanmarie Todd says:

This is wonderful! I’m a fan of Permaculture and agro-forestry, and I’m so thrilled to see Dr. Bronner’s embracing these methodologies and putting them to work in the Serendipalm project. Bravo!!

Kelle L Standley says:

Thanks Lisa, for this very thorough post and for all the good Dr Bronners is doing- Keep up the great work.

Lisa Bronner says:

Hi Stephanie- Hawaii is not the full tropics, so oil palms don’t grow as well and have a lower fruit yield, making it not economical.

Donna Almeida says:

This is wonderful news. Love Dr. Bronner’s Unrefined Coconut Oil- (Extra Virgin).

I am excited about Serendipalm and seeing these farmers healthy and happy, and successful.
I would like to hear more good things like this.

Thanks & God Bless you all 🙂

About Lisa Bronner

My grandfather was Dr. Bronner, my family makes soap, and I share ways to use it plus tips on greener living.

Learn about my book, Soap & Soul!

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