Washing your hands kills orangutans – 1 degree

Posted on December 19, 2010


“Johnny go wash your hands before dinner.”

“Awww mom, I don’t want to.”

“Don’t make me tell you again.”

“But mom every time I wash up an orangutan dies.”

So its not every soap out there that kills an orangutan but do you know if yours does or doesn’t?   The real issue is unsustainably grown palm oil.  Palm oil is a main ingredient in the production of soap.  In fact its not just soap.  Palm oil is in MANY of the products that we buy everyday.

Unsustainable production of palm oil leads to the destruction of the orangutan’s habitat through deforestation – either by the loss of forest or during the actual fires set to clear the land. The United Nations Environment Program estimates that an area of Indonesian rainforest the size of six football fields is cut down every minute of every day.”[1] Additionally, the orangutans are killed to protect the cash crop or are used as bush meat for the workers on the palm plantations.

Palm Oil is a multi-billion dollar industry.   Production of palm oil is generally limited to the tropical areas of the globe.  This puts palm oil production into direct competition for land resources with rainforest habitat and those species of plants and animals that inhabit such regions.  Compounding this issue is that orangutan habitat is isolated to two islands:  Borneo and Sumatra.  Both of these islands have thriving palm oil industries.

Producing sustainable palm oil is more expensive than producing unsustainable.  By using unsustainable palm oil companies are able to produce products very cheaply and increase profits.  Thereby externalizing the costs to the orangutans, the environment, and the people of the region.  Orangutans may only live on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra but they belong to all of us.

This problem is allowed to persist due to lack of consumer knowledge and the lack of economic incentives to companies.  I.E. because we don’t know we continue to reward a company’s bad behavior therefore they have no reason to change.

Other Issues Caused by Unsustainable Palm Oil

“Less well known is the situation in Colombia, where in some areas rightwing paramilitaries have driven peasants off their land to make way for plantations. The area under cultivation has doubled in four years, largely driven by surging demand for bio-fuels that use palm oil as feedstock.” [2]

Loss of rainforest
Killing of elephants, tigers, and other species
Increase in black market selling of exotic animals
Contribution to global climate change
Deprivation of land and other resources to a region’s local population

What’s Being Done Now

Besides the many grass roots organizations working to save the orangutans  The Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil was created in 1994.

“RSPO is a not-for-profi t association that unites stakeholders from seven sectors of the palm oil industry – oil palm producers, palm oil processors or traders, consumer goods manufacturers, retailers, banks and investors, environmental or nature conservation NGOs and social or developmental NGOs – to develop and implement global standards for sustainable palm oil.” [3]

Let’s remember that boycotting Palm Oil isn’t the right answer.  In fact, palm oil is an extremely productive plant producing more oil per acre than any other plant.  So the potential is there for palm oil to be a sustainable part of our lives that produces great benefits.

How You Can Help

Throw Money at it. Check out one, or all, of these organizations and help them fund their campaigns.  The Cheyenne Mountain Zoo also has orangutan art you can buy with 50% of sales going to orangutan conservation.

Cheyenne Mountain Zoo
The Palm Oil Action Organization
Borneo Orangutan Survival BOS
Forest Stewardship Council
Great Ape Trust
Nyaru Meteng Orangutan Rehabilitation Center
Orangutan Conservancy
Orangutan Land Trust
Orangutan Outreach
Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO)
SAWIT Watch -“Palm Oil Watch” in Indonesia
Sumatran Orangutan Society
World Wildlife Foundation (WWF)

Conscientious Consumer. Start reading the labels of the things that you buy and know what’s in the products you use.

Palm oil, also known as:
Sodium Laureth Sulphate (Can also be from coconut)
Sodium Lauryl Sulphates (can also be from ricinus oil)
Sodium dodecyl Sulphate (SDS or NaDS)
Palm Oil Kernal

Vitamin A Palmitate

Palm Oil in Cosmetics
Elaeis Guineensis
Glyceryl Stearate
Stearic Acid

Chemicals containing palm oil
Steareth -2
Steareth -20
Sodium Lauryl Sulphate
Sodium lauryl sulfoacetate (coconut and/or palm)
Hydrated palm glycerides
Sodium isostearoyl lactylaye (derived from vegetable stearic acid)
Cetyl palmitate and octyl palmitate (and anything with palmitate at the end)

You don’t have to swear off palm oil products in your life.  Just make sure that the company producing your product is a member of The Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil.  The RSPO has just launched a sustainable logo for packaging.  So look for this on your favorite products.

To help you out the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo has created a handy shopping guide that is updated regularly.

Becoming the Change You Want. There are many companies that are not members of the RSPO.  Write to the companies of your favorite products and let them know that you want to support them but only if they join RSPO and begin using sustainable palm oil.  Again the CM Zoo has a sample letter ready for your signature on their Speak Out page.

As with any organization the RSPO is only as good as those who enforce the rules.  Keep an eye on your favorite companies they may need correcting from time to time.  The WWF also keeps a yearly scorecard on Palm Oil Buyers

Additional Information:  If you come across additional information you think should be included here post it in the comments and I’ll add it to the list.

The Last Stand of the Orangutan – report released by UNEP (United Nations Environment Program)
The Oil for Ape Scandal – collaborative report.

[1]  Orangutans and palm oil:  What’s the connection
[2]  Retrieved from the Ethical Consumer website 12/19/2010.  Their article referenced “Massacres and paramilitary land seizures behind the biofuel revolution” The Guardian 5/6/07
[3]  Retrieved from RSPO website 12/19/2010
[4]  Retrieved from the Palm Oil Action Org website 12/19/2010
[5]  Nearly all of the links for additional information and those of the organizations were retrieved from the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo 12/19/2010
Posted in: Orangutans, Palm Oil, Soap