The Perils of Palm Oil

Misty green jungle landscapeI’ve danced around educating myself about palm oil for several months. I know it presents a great threat to the rainforest, but as I’m not primarily a wildlife or biodiversity advocate, I thought I might be able to file it away as someone else’s problem. Sometimes you just don’t want to take on one more cause.

However, as several articles rolled out recently calling into question the validity of the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), I was drawn to learn more. Seeking an expert, I interviewed fellow Ethical Writers Coalition member Magdalena Antuña, editor and founder of Selva Beat magazine. An avid advocate for changes in the palm-oil industry, Magdalena publishes content focused on ethical and palm-oil-free living.

Through the interview, I learned several shocking facts. First of all, palm oil is not a threat to the rainforest alone: Through the destruction of peatlands, palm oil agriculture emits thousands of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, making it a significant climate change offender. Second, palm plantations have been identified as sites of human trafficking, and plantations often grab land from vulnerable populations in order to expand. Third, palm oil can legally go by over 200 names on product packaging, making it difficult to avoid.

I’m now convinced that consumers (myself included) can no longer ignore the abuses of the palm oil industry, and we have the responsibility and power to demand better environmental and social practices. Read on for my full interview with Magdalena to learn more about the perils of palm oil as well as how you can help.

Fair for All: Where does palm oil come from?

Magdalena Antuña: Palm oil is an edible vegetable oil, extracted from the fruit which grows on African oil palm trees. As the name denotes, these trees are native to Africa but are primarily grown in Indonesia and Malaysia. In fact, oil palm trees can only be grown ten degrees North or South of the equator, a band of Earth that scientists have deemed incredibly bio-rich, rife with endemic and/or endangered species. So, though SE Asia is the primary market for the production of palm-oil, we see similar issues emerging in Africa and South America where this industry is beginning to pick up considerable momentum.

How is palm oil related to deforestation? Are there other issues with palm oil in addition to deforestation?

Palm oil is directly tied to deforestation because, like most vegetable oils, it must be farmed in order to be extracted for use. The global demand for this oil is so incredibly high that millions of hectares of land—which, in this region happens to be primarily rainforest—must be cleared and/or primed for monoculture plantations.

But not all of this land is free of human life. Another issue we see with palm-oil is land grabs, which rob indigenous peoples of their only homes. Though palm-oil creates many jobs, the labor standards—much like those in sweat shops—on plantations can be frighteningly low. Our rapid consumption stresses the system, in turn asking more and more of plantation workers. It’s also important to remember that while this booming industry means big money, this wealth is not necessarily well distributed. Previously, we’ve seen many cases where in laborers are lured from other cities and countries, promised good work, and fooled into what is essentially indentured servitude—practically starved and barred from communication with their loved ones.

Orangutan looking calmly to the side

Orangutan habitat is threatened by the expansion of palm oil plantations.

Deforestation gets a lot of attention for two reasons: endangered wildlife and global warming. Many areas where oil palm plantations can be found—in Africa and South America, too—were originally suitable habitat for some of the world’s most beloved animals: endangered orangutans, tigers, pangolins, sun bears, chimpanzees, the list goes on. Today, we watch the Leuser Ecosytem dwindle away, primarily at the hands of conflict palm.

Because of global warming, we also have to monitor peatland destruction. Peatlands hold far more carbon than your average rainforest (up to 28x more) and when you cut down just a hectare, thousands of tons of carbon dioxide are released into the atmosphere. The recent fires that devastated Indonesia, caused largely by irresponsible paper and palm oil companies illegally clearing land, created more greenhouse emissions in just three weeks than all of Germany does in one whole year.

The oil itself is not evil, but our gluttonous consumption and reliance on it has, no doubt, made palm-oil one of the largest environmental and human rights issues the world has ever seen.

What everyday products contain palm oil?

Our rule of thumb is that if it’s packaged, there’s a strong possibility that product contains palm-oil.

Anything from the cereal you eat to the almond milk you drink to the shampoo with which you wash your hair. Toothpaste, easy spread butter, foundation and vegan products, too. Palm-oil is extremely versatile, so it can be the basis for a lot of other ingredients like glycerin, sodium lauryl sulfate, cetearyl alcohol, etc.

Here’s a full list of the 200+ names palm-oil can legally go by in stores.

Full frame of breakfast cereal O's

Packaged products from breakfast cereal to snack food to toiletries often contain palm oil.

You’ve written before about your disapproval of the RSPO and the responsible palm oil certification process. Are there ways a consumer can know for sure that the palm oil in a certain product is truly responsible?

In light of several recent ‘bombshell’ articles regarding the RSPO’s credibility, I can’t say with confidence that there’s one fool-proof way for consumers to identify ethical palm-oil. This article is a great primer on how the supply chains work, as well as, how to speak with companies about their usage.

Put very simply, the word sustainability means little to nothing. Grill companies on their ability to trace their palm-oil from plantation to shelf. If a company says they use certified sustainable palm-oil, dig a little further. Traceability is key. No deforestation and peatland protection agreements score high, as well.

The world does need a governing body, like the RSPO or POIG, but it is similarly important that we remain critical of that body’s ability to police these practices effectively.

What are a few of your favorite palm oil-free products?

That’s actually kind of tough! I have a lot to choose from but perhaps my top three right now would be:

  • Earthpaste Toothpaste in Peppermint
  • Meow Meow Tweet’s Beer Shampoo Bar
  • Axiology lipstick in Elusive – perfect for fall!

What can the average person do to help the palm oil situation?

I believe passionately that consumers can make a difference regarding the palm-oil problem. It is genuinely ridiculous that the entire world should rely on the forests of only a handful of countries. Our view is that all palm-oil should be traceable, conflict-free, and ethically produced. But, that doesn’t mean that we should still have to eat and use it in everything.

We absolutely can, as a society, lessen our reliance on palm-oil. Begin by mitigating your consumption of packaged and processed foods. Fall in love with whole foods, local and organic produce. Rally with your community against irresponsible brands, urging them to fulfill their basic obligation to the planet. Start a Palm-Oil Action Team in your hometown via the Rainforest Action Network. Get into the habit of writing just one e-mail a night before you go to sleep.

It seems daunting, I know. But there will always be someone telling you that your contribution isn’t big enough to make a difference and you must remember that they will also say that to the next person, the person after that, and so on. There are hundreds of thousands of people out there that share your passion, you just have to find them.


Thanks to Magdalena for sharing her knowledge and passion! For more information about palm oil advocacy and palm-oil-free living, check out Selva Beat.

Waste Not, Want Not: Vegetable Stock from Kitchen Scraps

After reading Faye’s excellent post about making vegetable stock on her blog Sustaining Life, I was inspired to attempt it myself. And just in time too: I’ve made soup a couple of times this fall already and using plain water definitely leaves something to be desired.

I’ve never been a fan of purchasing stock from the store because it seems like a lot of packaging, either an unrecyclable carton or multiple cans. A couple of people have recommended bouillon cubes, and I agree those would probably be a good option. However, I like the idea of using the scraps of all the produce I’ve already bought. It’s like making something out of nothing!

As Faye advised, I stored my scraps in a plastic bag in the freezer. It took me about a month to collect enough to fill the bag. Here’s the collection I ended up with:

Vegetable scraps frozen in plastic bag

I reuse tortilla bags for everything.

I followed Faye’s recipe, first seasoning and roasting the scraps in the oven, them simmering them in water for a little over an hour.

Frozen vegetable scraps in a Pyrex baking pan

Some scraps I included were a pumpkin rind, a few apple cores, red and green pepper stems and membranes, onion ends, and rutabaga peelings.

Vegetable scraps in pot with water

Vegetables in pot after having been simmered

I could tell it was working because my apartment started to smell like delicious soup. After letting the stock cool, I removed the big vegetable chunks with tongs and then poured the remainder through a strainer.

The finished stock is a lovely golden brown and has an oh-so-slightly sweet flavor, probably due to the apple cores. My only puzzlement with the process is that I put in 8 or 9 cups of water and ended up with only 5 cups of stock. One culprit may be the fact that the lid to my stock pot has steam-release holes in it. The stock also came out a little more oily than I expected, which I’ll take as a lesson to lighten up on the olive oil during the roasting step. (I eyeballed it instead of measuring—a classic blunder. Come to think of it, I eyeballed the water amount too…)

Homemade vegetable stock in plastic container

The whole process was very easy and didn’t make a mess. Now I have tasty stock to use for making soup, rice, or anything else that could use a flavor boost instead of plain water, and I didn’t use anything other than scraps I would have thrown away. I definitely plan to continue collecting scraps for my next batch!

If you want to try it yourself, be sure to check out Faye’s post for the specific recipe and a helpful list of what veggies not to include in stock.

Have you ever made your own vegetable stock? How cool is it to make food out of [clean, edible] garbage??

The Journey Behind the “World’s Greatest Beanie”

Krochet Kids Intl. is a brand that’s truly dedicated to connecting consumers with the people behind their products. I’m excited to share their latest project with you, via the following post written and originally published by Abby Calhoun on her blog A Conscious Consumer.

Abby founded A Conscious Consumer as a way to document her journey towards practicing more mindful fashion consumption. Through her site she hopes to inspire others to evaluate their needs vs. wants in relation to fashion, and to look for alternative ways to satisfy both without compromising people or the environment.

Gray beanie on work table

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: as far as transparent and socially conscious brands go, Krochet Kids intl. is a leader of the pack. Since their inception in 2007, KK intl. has emerged as pioneers in the #knowwhomadeit movement, drawing consumer attention to the people at every step of the production process. Now they’re taking their innovative approach to social enterprise to the next level.

With the launch of their new Kickstarter campaign, KK intl. is asking for support in making the “World’s Greatest Beanie,” a project named for its revolutionary look at their supply chain and its emphasis on environmental sustainability. The “World’s Greatest Beanie” is made from the finest materials available without the use of chemicals or dyes, and in true KK intl. fashion, introduces supporters to every person along the production chain.

We took extra considerations into understanding every detail that goes into creating this product. Generations of craftsmanship stand behind the process and we are so excited to introduce a new generation of customers to the importance of these stories, both from a quality and social impact standpoint.

– Kohl Crecelius, CEO & Co­founder

The beanie starts at an alpaca farm in the Andes Mountains of Peru, and moves from farmer, to shearer, to fiber selector, to yarn maker, to craftswomen, and finally to consumer, all with complete transparency:

Alpacas grazing
Alpacas on a hillside in Peru
Worker selecting alpaca fibers
Close-up of alpaca yarn
Woman wearing gray beanie
Photos and signatures of workers

*all images courtesy of KK intl.

In line with KK intl. tradition, every beanie is hand ­signed by the woman who made it, connecting consumer with producer. KK intl. is dedicated to repairing these broken links that are inherent in the fashion industry as we know it today, and is demonstrating how one purchase can make a huge impact. Their model is based on empowerment and challenges consumers to transform the global fashion industry with their purchase.

We believe products have worth because people do. Our world would be a drastically different place if we all considered the impact our clothing had on the people who created it. This is the conversation that we want to bring to the forefront of the global dialogue.

Please consider standing up with KK intl. to let the world know there’s a new way that our products can be valued. By supporting their Kickstarter campaign, you can be part of a movement that says people matter.

A Primer on Climate Change for the Accidentally Uninformed

Iceberg in water

Climate change—you know it’s a thing. Politicians are bickering about it, you keep seeing companies tout their reduced carbon footprints, and if you’re in a state like Indiana, you see windmills popping up and feel vaguely good about it. Despite the seeming prevalence of the climate conversation, though, you find yourself foggy on the actual details of climate change. What’s actually happening? How bad is the problem? Have we already passed the point of no return? You can’t ask anyone you know for fear of sounding completely out of touch. It would be like asking someone to explain an iPhone.

I found myself in a similar situation recently. My latest project is sustainability-focused, and I realized that while I was familiar with the general principles of climate change and the need to reduce carbon emissions, I was uninformed about the actual mechanics and specific impacts. The catalyst that made me realize I needed to do some research was hearing people more and more frequently blame climate change for extreme weather events. I didn’t think it was quite as simple as climate change directly causing a storm or flood, so I went digging.

Naturally, I had the same FOLS (fear of looking stupid) I described above, so I started by looking for books on the topic. I didn’t find any containing the basic ground-level information I was looking for, but thankfully I found exactly what I needed from the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, a body that has existed since 1863 to advise the U.S. government on scientific and technical issues.

Climate Change: Evidence & Causes by the National Academy of Sciences and The Royal Society

Partnering with The Royal Society (the national academy of science in the U.K.), the NAS produced a climate change primer in 2014 that answers 20 of the most common questions about global warming, climate research and what Earth’s climate will look like in the future.

I found this resource to be incredibly helpful and authoritative. The Royal Society has a shorter version that condenses the questions and answers to just a sentence or two, which could be good for those of you who want to familiarize yourself with the scientific consensus without delving into the reasoning and process behind it.

Some enlightening sections of the NAS resource include:

  • The relationship between climate change and extreme weather
  • How scientists determined that human activities are the primary cause of climate change
  • Projections for the extent of climate change if we dramatically reduce emissions vs. continuing at the current rate

Disappointingly, this week I found out that Indiana is suing the EPA over its new climate rules. The most interesting yet disheartening fact from the article is that Indiana produces so many carbon emissions that even if we followed the new EPA rule—which the state is trying to avoid doing—we’d still emit more carbon than most states. This is the kind of news that makes the Parks & Recreation interpretation of Indiana feel completely astute at times. By contrast, though, a group off 22 Indiana-based climate scientists recently wrote an open letter to the governor in NUVO calling for the inclusion of sound science in the state’s climate mitigation and adaptation plan.

After gaining a more complete understanding of climate change, I’m more convinced than ever that we have a responsibility to live in a way that considers the impacts our decisions may have on our global neighbors. Many of the nations expected to feel the most significant impacts of climate change have contributed very little to the problem. Knowing that my state is one of the highest-emitting regions in one of the highest-emitting countries in the world reinforces my commitment to acknowledging our interconnectedness and trying to make more responsible lifestyle choices.

How Facebook Could Revolutionize the Sharing Economy

Remember the scene in The Social Network where one of Mark Zuckerburg’s friends asks him if a girl in his art history class is single? You see the lightbulb go on over Zuckerburg’s head, and he runs back to his dorm room to add Relationship Status as a field in Facebook profiles.

Creating a way to broadcast that simple piece of information revolutionized dating in the digital age. With the rise of the sharing economy, Facebook has an opportunity to allow us to broadcast another piece of key information that is typically hidden under social norms: the items we want to obtain or get rid of.

Imagine a feature called Facebook Exchange. It’s as simple as a shopping list. Users enter items into two categories: Things I Want and Things I’m Offering.

Mockup of Facebook profile with Exchange link

Mockup of Facebook Exchange lists

While it would seem nosy to ask everyone you know what they have in their house that they want to get rid of, and it would seem greedy to constantly ask people to give you stuff, the reality is that we all have wants and needs that people we already know could happily fulfill. The missing link is an easy connection between the wanters and the providers.

With a growing cultural mindfulness about waste and excess, people are more willing to share what they have and more uncomfortable with simply throwing decent stuff away. While there are plenty of standalone platforms for reselling, secondhand shopping and free-cycling, there isn’t one that connects you to the people you already know, and those are the people with whom many of us would be most interested in conducting an exchange.

Exchange isn’t a full classified ad service. Facebook tried that once with Marketplace, which has now been transferred to an external provider called Oodle and is no longer available on the Facebook platform. Facebook’s error with Marketplace was in reinventing the wheel. Relationship Status didn’t need to be a dating service; once the information was out there, users acted on it in a variety of different ways without needing additional intervention from Facebook. Similarly, Exchange isn’t about executing transactions; it’s about creating the sense of serendipity that comes from connecting with existing friends in new ways.

Let’s say I’m looking for vacuum cleaner bags. (My needs are glamorous, I know.) This is a low-value item that would be pretty pointless for anyone to sell, but it’s also an item that would be silly to throw away if it’s in perfectly good condition. In this case, let’s say one of my friends’ moms has vacuum cleaner bags to give away. She puts them on her Things I’m Offering list, and because we’re friends and I have vacuum cleaner bags on my Things I Want list, Facebook sends me a notification: “Janet Smith just added ‘vacuum cleaner bags’ to her Things I’m Offering list. Send her a message to ask more about it.” Janet would also get a notification that “Julia Spangler has ‘vacuum cleaner bags’ on her Things I Want list. Send her a message to see if she wants what you’re offering.”

Mockup of Facebook Exchange notification

That’s as far as the feature would go. Any photos of the item and the details of the transaction would be handled through person-to-person communication. Users would be free to arrange their own preferred forms of payment, barter, or give stuff away for free. In a lot of cases it could also eliminate shipping, which is one of the biggest inconveniences of online shopping. In this example, my need isn’t urgent, so I’d just pick up the goods the next time I was in Janet’s neighborhood.

The goal of Exchange is to identify potential matches between list items, then let users hash out the details in a subsequent conversation. Facebook’s understanding of language is good enough that it would be able to match up list items that are close but may not be phrased the exact same way. The feature would also be a boon to Facebook’s advertising strategy, since users would literally be telling the platform what they’re interesting in acquiring.

Exchange is obviously a hypothetical feature at this point, but it illustrates a potential solution to the gap between wanters and providers of any given item. My previous blog post on this topic illustrates how challenging it can be to find the right recipient for your unwanted stuff. How much better would life be if we could easily find those people within our own networks?

5 Things I Love About Not Using Shampoo

Showerhead with post title

It’s been 10 months since I’ve used shampoo. To some of you that may sound shocking, and others of you may already be familiar with the movement winkingly known as “no poo.” The underlying belief of the no-poo movement is that conventional shampoo is actually more damaging than it is helpful, and by stripping the natural oils from hair, it creates the need for more frequent washings than would otherwise be needed.

While I spent a couple of years experimenting with natural shampoos, the no-poo method lingered in the back of my mind as a mysterious, too-good-to-be-true myth conjured by the internets. However, once I found out that my two bandmates with dramatically excellent hair were also no-poo, I decided to give it a try.

I chose one of the methods I saw discussed most frequently online, using baking soda and apple cider vinegar in place of store-bought shampoo. I started out washing my hair on the same schedule I used to shampoo (every other day), and over time that became less frequent. Now I only wash my hair twice a week.

If you Google “no poo,” you’ll find a myriad of different methods and opinions and experiences. Some people have had negative experiences, and others, like me, only wish they’d done it sooner. Here are my five favorite things about no longer using shampoo:

1. It changed the way I think about my hair

Until I went no-poo, I was very concerned about my hair being clean. I felt like it would be a scandal to go out with unwashed hair. I washed my hair every day for most of my life and assumed that everyone else did the same. Now that I know about the wider world of hair care methods, I feel like I’ve been freed from a prison of my old assumptions about socially acceptable hair.

2. Less time spent styling

Changing the way I wash my hair has also changed how I think about styling it. I used to think I had to straighten my hair for it to be acceptable. Over the last 10 months I’ve begun to embrace my natural hair, which is sometimes mostly wavy and sometimes mostly straight—I’ve come to appreciate both without feeling like I need to intervene with a styling tool.

I felt like it was especially imperative to blow dry and straighten my hair for work, and now I realize that there are way better things to do with that 20 minutes every morning, and life will not end if I show up at the office with my hair how it naturally dries. Plus, since I wash my hair less, if I do decide to style my hair it lasts for several days.

I’ve also come to love wearing my hair in a bun—it’s quick, it looks good whether my hair is wet or dry, and it curls my hair for later. A trifecta in only 30 seconds.

Notable natural hair moments from this year. Waves! Movement! All brought to you by no-poo.

Some natural hair moments from this year. Waves! Movement! Note that my grandma is chic as all get-out at 92. Also note that no-poo gave me so much confidence in trying new looks that I actually pulled off wearing a hat.

3. No more traveling with a hair dryer and straightener

Breaking my reliance on heat styling means no more lugging around small appliances on every trip. Extra room in my suitcase for the win!

4. Uses no plastic bottles

Now that I don’t buy shampoo, that’s one less plastic bottle in my waste stream every couple of months. My baking soda comes in a cardboard box and my apple cider vinegar comes in a glass bottle. I go through the baking soda every 4-6 weeks, but I’m still working on my original bottle of vinegar since I use so little at a time.

5. My hair has more volume and holds curl

I remember the first day I went out in public having washed my hair the new way. It was the Colts vs. Patriots AFC Championship game this past January, the game of Deflate-gate fame. I washed my hair in the morning and wore it in a bun most of the day, and when I let it down to go watch the game, it was holding beautiful, voluminous curls. Though the Colts’ playoff hopes and the game balls deflated, my curls did not, and I’ve never looked back.

Julia wearing curly hair and a blase expression

An example from earlier this year of curls I could not have achieved before no-poo. Ignore my sullen expression; inside I am giddy.

For those of you interested in the details of my hair washing routine, here’s what I do specifically:

  1. Fill a small travel shampoo bottle halfway with baking soda, then fill it the rest of the way with water. Shake to mix. Depending on the size of the bottle this should last for 2-4 washes.
  2. Combine 1-2 tablespoons of apple cider vinegar with 1 cup water in a small spray bottle. This quantity should last for 6-10 washes, depending on how heavily you apply it and and how much hair you have.
  3. Wash wet hair and scalp with baking soda mixture. Do not wash ends of hair. Rinse well.
  4. Spray vinegar mixture onto hair, including the ends. I let it sit for a minute or two to absorb. Rinse well.

You may be tempted to skip the vinegar rinse, but don’t. I’m not totally up on the science of it, but because baking soda is basic on the pH scale, it’s important to follow it with an acid to keep the pH of your hair balanced.

Lots of no-poo articles describe an adjustment period during which hair gets incredibly greasy. That was my biggest fear going in, but it ended up not being an issue for me at all. I think this is due to the fact that I started using the new supplies right away instead of letting my hair “lie fallow” for a few weeks, as many articles recommend. There was a brief period where my hair looked slightly greasy, but not to the extent that I felt like I needed to cover my hair. Following the slightly greasy period there was a dry period, which I also didn’t really mind because it gave my hair temporary super-volume and I had a lot of fun with that. I don’t remember exactly when my hair found equilibrium again, but I think it was around the three-month point.

I have often pondered how people in the past kept their hair from looking greasy, because I know if I lived on the prairie in a cabin with no heat, I would not be washing my hair at all between November and March. No-poo hasn’t totally answered this question for me, but it has shown me that human hair can take care of itself more than most people give it credit for.

Have you tried no-poo? What was your experience? Can anyone enlighten me about old-timey hair care methods?

Vacation… and a Teaser

I’m on a quick family vacation right now with my dear sister (check her out if you like interior design and DIY projects). I’ll be back with a regular post later this week, but I wanted to take this random-post opportunity to foreshadow something new I have in the works.

Blurred out photo of new project

Coming soon!

It’s somewhat related to Fair for All but is also something completely different. I may be a little more hit-or-miss with regular posting as I shift some attention to this new project. It’s exciting and a little scary (for me, not anyone else, I hope) and I’m looking forward to when I can officially share it with you!

With that extremely vague teaser, have a great start to your week and try not to lie awake wondering!