On environmental feminism: Palm oil and the pursuit of beauty

Jessica Tomlinson

My college husband infamously shaved off his eyebrows for last Halloween. He was in search of the perfect costume—Naruto, if you wish to picture the scene—and decided to take this bold step (just before he dyed them yellow, of course) to achieve the desired look.

This incident illustrated two things to me: firstly, that Will should really keep his eyebrows whole, and secondly, that we, as humans, are willing to do a lot in the pursuit of what we perceive as beauty.

Of course, this is an outlandish example. We don’t all go to such extremes, and the jury is still out on whether the half-eyebrow look is a good one… however, we all care about what we look like and use make-up to express ourselves and to create, to relax and to enhance, to conceal and to define. Cosmetics today have never been such a popular, such a varied, or frankly, such an empowering way to express identity.

So, why is there still a huge issue?

The problem is this: beauty is killing the environment. Not single-handedly, of course—we still have the automotive, the petroleum, and the farming industries to thank for that. However, its contribution is significant; numerous commonly used raw ingredients directly contribute to the environment’s destruction. One of the most commonly named offenders is palm oil. The negative impact of palm oil—a basic ingredient in most lipsticks, for example—lies in its production, which capitalistically and neo-colonially necessitates the increasing destruction of native areas of unique biodiversity in favour of the widespread planting of these homogenous, non-native cash crops.

It’s easy to see the problem, then. What’s not so easy to fathom is the sheer scale of damage that has occurred in such a short amount of time. A total area of more than 27 million hectares on the earth’s surface is currently comprised of plantations of only palm oil trees. Entire pockets of the earth’s unique and diverse forested areas are being torn down, replaced by “green deserts”, areas of non-native, fast growing, and almost entirely homogenous cash crop plantations that span an area that is, according to Greenpeace, the size of New Zealand.


(Image source – Meridian foods)

These damning statistics may beg the question of why this matters particularly to women, particularly from a feminist perspective. The cosmetics industry, while primarily aimed at a majority female demographic, has not magically broken the glass ceiling. It is not headed by solely—or even majority—female directors. So, what more makes environmental issues so pertinent to modern day feminist philosophy? The answer—at least, for me—lies in ecofeminism. Ecofeminist principles suggest that both gender and environmental issues (read: subjugation) stem from the same place (read: the patriarchy). Environmental destruction in the name of progress is headed by men, and it is our duty to fight for social equality on behalf of that which can’t: the environment.

It’s essential to remember that the responsibility for eco-friendly change doesn’t lie solely on the shoulders of cosmetics giants: 61% of palm oil consumption in the EU in 2017, for example, was repurposed as biofuel, power and heat. However, I believe that the cosmetics industry is one particular piece of an environmentally destructive puzzle that we, as women, as feminists, and as consumers, can solve. A simple look at the dynamics of supply and demand suggests that the true power lies in the hands of the consumers, and that change begins the day we take a stand.

So, what are the plausible alternatives to the status quo?

The obvious alternative, for me, is organic makeup. Lush is the quintessential environmentally ethical brand: Lush has phased out its use of palm oil, and has likewise stopped the inclusion of sodium palm kernelate in its products, a chemical that is extracted from the very same rainforest trees that are often felled to make way for palm plantations. Yet even Lush aren’t entirely palm-free: whilst Lush soap-based products are currently free of palm oil, the same cannot be said of their shampoo bars and other similar products. There lie other issues with organic make-up. Lush is expensive by necessity—as stipulated by the company’s ecologically conscious business model, the cost of their products is determined by the cost of the raw ingredients rather than on what the market would determine the product to be worth—and the market has evidently determined environmentally conscious raw materials to be exponentially more expensive than damaging, destructive resources obtained from capitalist cash crop farms.

Screen Shot 2018-11-04 at 15.50.01

(Image source – Wikipedia)

So, what can we do to stop contributing to a booming industry that has a hand in destroying the solidarity that should—and inherently does—exist between the subjugated groups of women and the environment?

Change in the market typically occurs slowly. A revolution sounds like a whisper, as Tracy Chapman would say. I’m not suggesting that we completely stop wearing cosmetics. This is wildly optimistic and wildly implausible; it will be a shocking day indeed when every make-up wearing woman or man puts down their makeup brushes for the final time, moving beyond a many-thousand-year history and cultural tradition of makeup to embrace their natural face at last.

I believe, though, that as more and more cosmetics wearers become aware of the extent of the problem, there will be a gradual shift away from products that damage forested areas in such a devastating way. However, the problem is becoming increasingly urgent—more and more of the planet’s rich tapestry of biodiversity is being ripped away in the name of greed, and the only way to stop it immediately lies in the hands of governing bodies. Take, for example, the total EU and UK ban on microbeads. These tiny plastic particles are helping to pollute our oceans and are having a severe impact on marine wildlife. Microbeads enter ocean food chains when they they’re eaten by marine inhabitants, and as a result they can just as easily end up in our Friday night fish ‘n’ chips.

Well, they could have done, that is. A complete ban on the sale and manufacture of microbeads in the UK came into force in June of this year. However, microbeads were affecting British marine territories, and so, perhaps for one of the first times, the reality of what we in the west are doing to our home struck a chord—a chord that focuses entirely too much on solely British interests, that is. What will Western governments do about the palm oil crisis, a tragedy taking place mainly in developing countries with rich natural resources and the correct climate for fast growing palm crops, such as Indonesia, Malaysia and South America? Well, that’s a different story, and one that is far too tied up in the complex politics of neo-liberal, neo-colonial enterprise and exploitation for me to discuss here.

So, as I said at the start: we are willing to go far in the pursuit of “beauty”. We are willing to go, with our mute compliance and acquiescence, as far as the destruction of our planet. I believe this statement could and should be adapted for the environmentally conscious feminist: we are willing to go far in the pursuit of ethical beauty. We are willing to go far in the pursuit of fair treatment for the planet which graciously allows us to call it home, and in the pursuit of solidarity in the face of the capitalist and patriarchal oppression that has allowed travesties like this to occur far too frequently, for far too long.

(Featured image source – savageonline.com)

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