How environmentally friendly is coconut oil?


When it comes to the beauty industry, coconut oil has exploded in popularity due to its natural attributes and great versatility. Especially among those who prefer to live a minimalist lifestyle, a product that proves just as useful in the kitchen cupboard as it does in home beauty care seems like a huge win for sustainability.

However, coconut oil has seen its share of ebb and flow throughout history. In the western world, the product was vilified in the 1950s for its high saturated fat content, but became popular again in the early 2010s. Before that, coconut oil had long been used in tropical areas where it grows. coconut palms, especially in Indonesia, the Philippines and India.

Is coconut oil environmentally friendly? The claim that coconut oil is the holy grail of sustainable beauty products has been the subject of debate, especially given its large transportation footprint and ethical demands. We’ll walk you through everything there is to know about the sustainability of coconut oil in the beauty industry.

Products containing coconut oil

  • Lip balm and lipstick
  • Self-tanning bronzer and moisturizer
  • Shaving cream and aftershave
  • Bubble bath, soap, shampoo and conditioner
  • Sunscreen, lotion and foot cream
  • Face masks, body scrub, facial cleanser and makeup remover
  • Supplements for hair, skin and nails
  • Deodorant and toothpaste
  • Diaper cream

How is coconut oil made?

LRPhotographies / Getty Images

Although it may be considered a somewhat new product in the West, coconut oil has been used for millennia in the tropics where coconut palms are native. both as a food ingredient and as a cultural element.

European traders first imported oil to Europe and the United States at the end 19th century after crossing it in India, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Polynesia and Indonesia.

Coconut oil is made by pressing fresh or dried coconut meat (also known as a kernel) which is also used to produce coconut milk and dried coconut flakes. Typically, refined coconut oil uses dried coconut (also known as copra) and virgin coconut oil uses fresh produce, although the terms “virgin” and “extra virgin” are not regulated in the same way as olive oil.

Although coconut is cultivated in more than 90 countries, more than 83% of global total return comes from Asia, Indonesia and the Philippines representing the largest producers and exporters of coconut oil.

There is basically three types of coconut oil: virgin (interchangeable with extra virgin), refined and partially hydrogenated. Virgin coconut oil can be expeller-pressed (produced with coconut flesh and a steam or hot press) or cold-pressed (produced without heat at a temperature below 120 degrees Fahrenheit).

Refined coconut oil uses the same method of machine pressing on the cobra – or dried coconut – before heating and filtering the oil to remove impurities or bacteria. Due to this process, refined coconut oil is both tasteless and odorless.

With partially hydrogenated coconut oil, the small amount of unsaturated fat naturally found in coconut oil is charged or combined with hydrogen to extend shelf life and maintain a solid texture even at low temperatures. hot temperatures.

Environmental impact of coconut oil

by Alfian Widiantono / Getty Images

In general, the main environmental problem associated with coconut cultivation is deforestation. Many conversations around the environmental impact of coconut oil compare it to palm oil, which grows in the same tropical regions with significant levels of biodiversity.

Although they can still be grown as a single crop in one area at a time (also known as a monoculture, which can disrupt the natural balance of the soil by depriving it of its nutrients), coconut palms are not. associated with the same level of deforestation in the form of oil palms.

While oil palms tend to produce higher amounts of oil than coconuts, coconuts generate more products, such as coconut milk, cream, water, and activated charcoal. Coconut palms also grow well with other crops like bananas, coffee, and cocoa, blending more naturally with the surrounding environment, while oil palms do not mix well with other plants. Coconuts are also harvested by hand rather than by energy-intensive machines.

Coconut oil extraction, on the other hand, uses industrialized equipment, especially among some of the larger and more conventional brands. Expeller treatment often uses a chemical solvent called hexane to separate the coconut from the oil. Hexane is a colorless liquid that has been linked to neurotoxicity in animals (However, more brands are advertising hexane-free ingredients on their coconut oil labels).

Cold extraction methods are generally more environmentally friendly as they do not require solvents and refining processes, such as deodorant and whitening, and require less energy. Some techniques use a low-pressure extraction process, which saves energy while producing sustainable biomass, such as coconut husks and husks that can be reused as fuel.

A 2020 article in the journal Current Biology grabbed the headlines and sparked controversy when he suggested that coconut production poses a threat to biodiversity five times greater than that of palm oil. Coconut crops threaten 18.33 species per 1 million tonnes of oil produced, according to the report, while olive oil and palm oil threaten 4.12 and 3.79 species, respectively. This countered other views, such as that of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) – which, ironically, the article uses in its research – arguing that palm oil is associated with more endangered species than any other crop – in particular, nearly five times more than walnut oil coconut.

Other researchers found the document misleading because it referred to the number of endangered coconut oil species per tonne, dividing the number of endangered species by the amount of oil produced by the crop annually.

Coconut palms become less productive as they age, and replacing them with newer trees to meet demand can negatively affect soil quality and cause farmers to rely more on chemical fertilizers to stay productive.

In 2017, total world coconut production was 60,773,435 tons.

Can coconut oil be of ethical origin?

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It is very common to see coconut oil advertised as “fair trade” and there is a reason for that. Coconut cultivation has gained a bad reputation for using child labor, and in some cases, monkey labor, as well as underpaid workers and illegal land grabbing.

According to United States Department of Labor, coconuts are one of the main sources of child labor and forced labor in the Philippines, with nearly 45% of the total child laborer population (aged 5-14) condensed into the whole agricultural industry.

In 2020, a new PETA Asia survey discovered that monkeys were still used to harvest coconuts on at least eight large farms in Thailand, all of which have been observed mistreating or exploiting the animals.

Rather than large industrial plantations, the coconut oil industry in Indonesia and the Philippines is predominantly made up of smallholder farms, accounting for approximately 95% of total production in the countries. In the Philippines, small-scale coconut farmers are among the poorest in the country, with 60% living at or below the national poverty line.

Fair Trade certification helps indicate brands that provide farmers with a living wage and use cultivation methods that take environmental sustainability into account. Coconut oil products with fair trade practices benefit everyone, as farmers who are properly compensated are less likely to use unsustainable means to cultivate their crops, thereby protecting local biodiversity and supporting the economy.

The United States-based nonprofit association Fair Trade United States has a certification program that addresses transparency in the coconut industry at its source.

Other problems with coconut oil

It’s no secret that transporting food is a growing concern when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions. When a product that is mainly produced in a limited number of countries gains immense popularity in other parts of the world, such as the United States which becomes obsessed with coconut oil produced in Indonesia and the Philippines, it contributes enormously to transport emissions.

Besides simple transportation, whether by boat, truck, or plane, coconut oil requires packaging (which can range from glass to plastic) to increase shelf life as it travels from point A to point B.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Is organic coconut oil better for the environment?

    Certified organic coconut oil is grown using pesticides and non-synthetic herbicides, which many believe further threaten insect populations and contaminate water sources.

  • Is coconut oil sustainable?

    Coconut has the potential to be a much more sustainable alternative to other oils, such as palm oil, if the product has been certified as fair trade (ethically sourced).

    Currently, there are no global sustainability standards specifically in the coconut oil industry, although organizations like the Alliance for the sustainability of fair trade and the Rainforest Alliance start to create the frame.


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