Coconut oil is EVERYWHERE. Are you addicted? No wonder! Luxurious and works wonders on our skin and hair, this new skincare star has a lot of merits. But watch out, not all coconut oils are created equal. In particular, their ecological and ethical track record isn’t always commendable…
Coco Nucifera Oil: One name, two oils
Under the same INCI name, there exist two different oils that both come from the same fruit.
On the one hand: there’s real virgin coconut oil, mechanically harvested by cold-pressing the fresh flesh of mature coconuts, with no excess heating or chemical products. Once extracted, the oil is filtered and stripped of its impurities. White and clear, solid at room temperature, it melts easily upon contact with the skin. On top of that, it’s not greasy to touch and has a lovely exotic odour that transports us directly to a heavenly island. Lovely!
But Coco Nucifera Oil can equally be Copra oil, made from coconut flesh that’s been drying out in the sun for several days. What are its advantages? Fewer costs and restrictions, no complex dealing with fresh products, no time restrictions after picking, and processing can take place far away from the areas it was grown. But there’s one major disadvantage: exposed to the air, to pollution and to insects, the quality of the flesh degrades. Bacteria and moisture builds up and the brownish oil extracted has a strong rancid odour. Obtained through hot-pressing for increased yield, the oil has to be refined: purified, whitened and all of its scents are removed through an intense chemical process. Bye bye, heavenly odour.
Copra or Coconut? You can’t compare them!
Coconut oil is particularly rich in lauric acid and antimicrobial fatty acids that perfectly complement our skin. Nourishing and full of antioxidants thanks to its vitamin A and E content, naturally anti-inflammatory, a saviour for dry, damaged and irritated hair and skin. Logically, you’ll find Coco Nucifera Oil in a lot of home recipes which it perfumes pleasantly: balms, creams, shampoos, masks, soaps, toothpaste and even head lice-removing remedies. It’s even the base of lots of moisturising ingredients that start with ‘coco’. Its stability when cooked also makes it a go-to fat for pastries, industrial frying, margarine, etc. A high-quality alternative to palm oil.
But in an overwhelming majority of cases, your industrial soap or pie-crust will contain Copra oil, which is much more economically priced. After all, what’s the difference, other than a little sensory pleasure? Industrial refining! Polluting and energy-intensive, this process completely changes the oil’s qualities: the whitening agents and chemical solvents leave residues, the hot-pressing extraction destroys some of its properties, particularly vitamins. You end up with an oil that’s very greasy and doesn’t do a whole lot of good for your skin. In short, you’re sacrificing effectiveness for profit. What’s worse is that, in order to stabilise it, the oil is very often hydrogenated and so full of trans-fats, known to be harmful to your cholesterol levels and cause cardiovascular problems. Not the kind of thing you want on your plate! And for our skin? Without any concrete evidence from research, we advise you to be careful. Does the label say unscented coconut oil? It’s probably going to be Copra oil. But it’s not always easy to know without questioning the manufacturer.
Environment & ethics: Coconut oil doesn’t always smell so good
So you’ve scoured your kitchen or bathroom and every drop of coconut oil is virgin and cold-pressed. Great news for your health and your skin… But not necessarily for the regions where it’s produced. If today we’re all preoccupied with the ecological and social disaster associated with palm oil, the behind-the-scenes of coconut oil is less known. Coco or Copra even get a good rep just because of their association with far-off lands and the high price of quality coconut oils.
It’s not always a paradise when it comes to palm trees. What’s the problem? They have a very low yield: one hectare of coconut palms produces 0.7 tons of oil each year where the same area would yield 3 tons of palm oil. A coconut tree takes more than 10 years to grow to be commercially profitable and takes months to grow perfectly ripe fruits. As a result, producers do what they can to speed up oil production: pollutant fertilisers and pesticides have become essential tools for palm plantations. Another major difficulty is the picking. With production coming 95% from small South-East Asian producers, it’s mostly done artisanally – you have to climb up to 25m high to pick the ripe fruits! Difficult, dangerous and not particularly productive. And it’s not the farmers that set the prices, they’re pressured into tearing down their prices to keep up with the mass demand. The result is that 65% of farmers are paid less than 1$ per day. Pickers are among the most vulnerable workers in regions that are already not particularly commendable in terms of their working conditions and lifestyles.
But where a human picker can pick maybe 80 coconuts per day, producers have found more interesting solutions – animal exploitation. Exploited at will and easy to replace, monkeys are shaking up the coconut production industries in Thailand, India and Indonesia. They’re quick, agile, they quickly learn how to pick out the ripe fruits. Macaques are stolen away from their mothers as babies, who are often killed in the process, and then turned into slaves overnight. Working 10 hours a day with no breaks, these monkeys can pick up to 1600 coconuts, unpaid and unquestioning. What a boost to performance and profitability! If they get tired and slow down, just beat them a few time and they’ll get back to work. Kept captive day and night, these monkeys are completely cut off from their community and their environment – really detrimental to these animals which depend particularly on social interaction. And a bit ironic for a vegan alternative to butter…
Should we give it up?
How can we not be complicit in this exploitative industry? Should we boycott coconut oil? Not necessarily. Consuming certain coconut oils allow us to support ethical production, which is a precious revenue source for these regions. Labelled organic and vegan, fair trade, these oils guarantee that the environment, animals and local communities are respected in production. Particularly the label One Voice, which explicitly guarantees that not a single monkey is harmed in production. Your oil isn’t labelled? Ask the manufacturer.
At oOlution, we exclusively use coconut oil that is cold-pressed and certified organic, produced by family-farms and with no animal exploitation. Avoiding single-crop farming, the coconut plantations are used for cacao, coffee, home to wild species, fruit trees… Which has threefold benefits – biodiversity builds up the local wildlife, the inter-species interaction naturally regulates pests without using any pesticides and, thanks to diverse sources of revenue, the farmers are less dependent on prices.
Of course, labels don’t miraculously transform coconut oil into a 100% ecological ingredient – coming from far away, its carbon footprint suffers. Above oil, coconut and palm oil, and their derivatives, all stem from the same problem – the global thirst for a raw material that simply cannot be produced globally. Could coconut oil be the new palm oil? Fortunately, we aren’t quite there yet. Much less profitable, coconut oil is safe from the negative impact of overproduction – it’s a question of €2m per year (for coconut oil and all of its derivatives) versus €130b for palm oil alone. And coconut palms have another big advantage: they need very little water and grow in a much less concentrated geographical area – even on sand. They’re not burning down forests to make way for coconuts. For now at least… And it’s up to us to ensure that the industry won’t turn out like that.
The simple solution – diversify our plant oils
As far as food is concerned, coconut oil, even virgin, isn’t the best. Except in the case of low-carbohydrate diets. There are already too many saturated fats in it. Despite the 1001 advantages of coconut oil (a metabolism booster, a fat burner, etc.), it’s better to use other, more local, oils – olive, flax, nut, rapeseed… Coconut water and coconut milk are delicious, but try to consume them in moderation.
When it comes to cosmetics, skincare and DIY recipes, let’s try to avoid always using coconut oil as the star ingredient. Yes, it’s great for our skin. But it’s not the only plant oil that’s got good effects on our skin. And it’s only when combined with other oils where it is most effective anyway! At oOlution, our principle is simple: there’s never one ‘star’ ingredient, but each one of our products contains a huge variety of active ingredients which complement each other to meet the needs of our skin. They don’t subscribe to single-crop farming, a process detrimental to biodiversity and a big consumer of nasty pesticides.
In skincare, as in life, it’s all about balance! By acting now, we will avoid turning the coconut oil production industry into one as atrocious as palm oil.
This post is also available in french.