Friday, March 12, 2010

The Dirty Story of Soap

It is a funny thing about soap, it is a dirty product with an environmentally dirty history. This month while I have been reevaluating the sustainability of the products I use everyday, soap has become a challenging topic.

Soap is not a “natural” product, it is a creation of civilized humans. You can’t grow it in your garden. You won’t find on a hillside. We probably associate cleanliness with civilization because making soap requires a complex processing of ingredients. And the primary ingredient is fat. Fat lubricates and aids in washing away dirt, bacteria or any other substance that is stuck where ever you don’t want it to be.

Over the course of human history the “fat” ingredient has changed, but to be successful it must be abundant and cheap. Typically that fat source has also been connected to energy production. For example, the Greeks and Romans used olive oil to make soap and to burn in lamps. Around the Mediterranean, forests and woodlands were cut down to cultivate olives. As the increase of production became limited, olive oil became more expensive. Medieval Europeans moved toward a fat that was more available for them, animal fat or tallow. Every grade-school student in California knows that the Spanish established their missions and ranchoes here to raise cattle. We gloss over the fact that these huge tracts of land produced cattle not for beef, but for their hides (leather) and their tallow (candles and fat for soap). Hides and tallow were shipped back to Spain at a sizable profit.

In the late 1700s, a new fat source became available because shipping technology had developed faster, larger ships. Whale blubber became the next cheap fat. Whale oil burned bright in the oil street lamps of the world’s developing cities and fueled the industrial revolution. After WW2, cheap abundant fat from blue whales was the main ingredient in mass-produced soaps. Major international corporations covered up the fact they were using whale oil. Most consumers didn’t know what they were washing their hands with the lives of the great whales.

Petroleum-based products became the next cheap and abundant fat and energy source. Chemical manipulation of fossil fuels created man-made "fats." All you have to do is look at the price you are paying to fill your car's gas tank to know that another resource had to be found.

Today most soaps have moved toward the latest cheap and abundant fat–plant oils. When I bought two bars of my favorite low cost “pure vegetable” soap, I thought I was buying an environmentally friendly product. No animals were tested. No animal fats were used. There are no synthetic petroleum-based chemicals. But, here is the problem: palm oil and soy oil.

Two plant crops are being raised around the world to mass produce the amount of plant oil fat that the growing human population wants to eat, burn and wash with. Yes, plant oils are more sustainable than some other fat sources, but remember back to the Greeks and Romans and how they changed natural ecosystems by replacing woodlands with olive orchards.

Palm oil plantations of the 21st century are huge areas of land carved out of Indonesian rainforests. Industrialized soybean farming in South America is plowing into the Amazonian forests. Such vast areas of the world’s tropical ecosystems are being farmed that the plants and animals that naturally live there are being threatened. To put a face on this natural crisis look to the orangutan. In some areas endangered orangutan populations have declined by 50-90% because of palm oil plantations that have replaced their forests.
orangutans and palm oil plantations in Borneo

So look at the ingredients on your hand soap, shampoo, body lotions, cosmetics, even dish soap and laundry detergent. Reconsider products with:
  • palm oil
  • sodium palmate
  • sodium palm kernelate
What price are you willing to pay to be clean?

Look for palm oil in your food too.

Green Action #1 Sustainable Food

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