GoodLight, Palm, and Sustainability
In 2007, when we we first began considering using palm wax to make our candles, we started researching the palm oil industry. Back then, palm oil was something with which few Americans were familiar. Thankfully, people are now more aware of what palm oil is and are demanding that the issues surrounding the industry be addressed.
Before we dive into the topic of industry, let’s talk about the actual plant—the oil palm tree. One of the more than 2500 species of palm trees, the oil palm is the most efficient oil-producing plant in the world, yielding 4 - 10x more oil per acre than any other oil-producing crop. This means that oil palm trees can yield a lot more oil on a lot less land than any other crop (i.e. soy), allowing more land elsewhere to be preserved. Palm is grown in tropical regions where rainfall is abundant, necessitating less irrigation than most crops. And instead of being an annual crop that requires a lot of pesticides and needs to be mowed down every year (causing topsoil erosion), it’s a non-GMO tree that lives for 25 years in an agricultural setting, producing one ripe bunch of fruit every month or two. This makes the oil palm fruit a rapidly renewable resource. The list of palm’s eco-friendly advantages goes on, but for now let’s move on to talk about the industry.
But that part we just mentioned about oil palm trees being grown in the tropics— well, that has negative consequences too, as the tropics are home to rainforests whose existence is crucial to the health of the planet and all of our futures. Over the past few decades there has been serious environmental degradation in Southeast Asia where more than 80% of the world’s palm oil is grown; much of this destruction has come from the timber and palm industries. Peat lands have been drained, forests have been bulldozed or burned, wildlife habitat (especially that of the orangutan) has been lost, and communities have been displaced. As counter-intuitively as it may seem, the more we learned about these issues, the more compelled we felt to get involved with palm oil. That’s because we saw an opportunity to make a difference. Like most environmentalists, we believe that boycotting palm isn’t a realistic way to stop the destruction. The global market for this commodity is too huge (it is the most voluminous plant-based oil on the market today), and if Western consumers don’t help create demand for sustainable palm, then there will be no market for it, and palm oil farmed in conventional and destructive ways will find a market in less developed nations. We believe that the only way to have any sort of positive impact on the palm industry is through market-driven change.
This approach has been inspired by such forward-thinking companies as Patagonia. Patagonia didn’t quit making cotton clothing because it’s the most pesticide-laden crop in the world; instead, they switched to using organic cotton, increasing demand for it. The exponential growth of organic cotton cultivation over the past two decades is obviously not all of Patagonia’s doing, but their influence is significant. The use of market forces to promote sustainability has also been proven in the growth of organic agriculture, recycled paper products, alternative energies, and palm oil.
In 2003, the World Wildlife Fund helped found the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil. The RSPO developed a set of criteria to redress the negative impacts the palm oil industry was having on our planet and its people. These standards promote sustainable farming practices, environmental stewardship, and social responsibility. In 2008, the RSPO certified its first sustainable plantations and mills in accordance with these criteria. Since then, more growers and mills have been certified, and it’s beginning to have an impact: In 2010, 3.5 million tons of palm oil came from RSPO-certified plantations—double the amount from the year before; and by 2013, RSPO-certified crude palm oil accounted for 17% of the global supply.
Truly living up to the name roundtable, the RSPO hosts a yearly international conference that brings together industry leaders, governmental bodies, NGOs, and environmental groups to discuss the issues brought on by palm agriculture and to find solutions to its problems. With so much input and feedback, the organization continues to evolve and increase its efficacy. While some continue to criticize the RSPO for not doing enough, GoodLight is a proud member of the RSPO that enthusiastically supports its efforts. It is no small task mediating so many conflicting interests, and the RSPO has done a commendable job of stepping up to the plate and initiating progress towards sustainability.
GoodLight is also a member of GreenPalm, an organization that keeps track of how much crude palm oil and palm kernel oil is produced by RSPO-certified plantations, and then brokers its sale on the market. Since there is a limited separate supply chain for RSPO-certified palm oil, and since we are a small company that cannot afford our own plantations and mills, it is difficult for us to guarantee that the wax used to make our candles comes from palm oil that is “identity-preserved.” We therefore pay a premium for sustainable palm oil through GreenPalm to “book and claim” the source of our raw materials. This way we know that our (and your) money is going to RSPO-certified plantations and the farmers who have made the choice to be part of the solution. The idea behind this is simple: pay growers more money for crops farmed sustainably and thereby incentivize environmental stewardship. (It’s the same thing we do every time we buy an organic banana or apple at the grocery store or purchase wind or solar energy from our local electric company.) GreenPalm also donates a percentage of our transactions to the RSPO. As of 2016, GreenPalm has given the RSPO over $13 million and has enabled RSPO-certified palm oil growers to earn $87 million in the past 8 years.
In the grand scheme of things, GoodLight is just a small player in the world of palm. But the more candles we create—the more GoodLight we spread around the world—then the more we can influence positive change. We want to be a part of the solution, specifically by advancing moratoriums on deforestation, creating wildlife migration corridors and waterway buffer zones within existing plantations (large-scale permaculture is possible!), and ensuring corporations are responsible to the communities from which they are profiting—all the time while offering our customers affordable, clean-burning, non-toxic, paraffin-free candles.
The Pro’s of Palm Oil:
- Oil palm trees produce up to 10x more oil per acre than any other oil-producing crop.
- Oil palm trees are perennials that live approximately 25-30 years in an agricultural setting, as opposed to other crops that are annuals. Since they do not get mowed down every year, the soil does not get disturbed; less tilling equals much less erosion and polluting runoff.
- Oil palm trees are unique in a way that they have higher leaf area index that allows them to have better photosynthetic efficiency. This results in the palm trees to produce more oxygen to the air and absorb more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
- Oil palm trees are non-GMO.
- The mills used to refine the oil from the fruit of the tree are often located on the actual plantation. These mills produce much less waste by recycling the biomass (branches, etc.) as fuel for the production processes or by composting the biomass into natural fertilizer for the fields.
- Abundant rain in Southeast Asia means little irrigation is needed on palm plantations.
- Compared to other major oilseed crops, the cultivation and processing of oil palm requires less input of fertilizers, pesticides, and fuel energy to produce one ton of oil.
For more reading, an article from Smithsonian Magazine about palm and sustainability: Giving Up Palm Oil Might Actually Be Bad for the Environment