Palm oil, also known as “invisible oil,” is the most consumed vegetable oil in the world. You can find it in about half of all products sold in supermarkets. In fact, 85 percent of all palm oil is used as an ingredient in the foods we eat every day, margarine, chocolate, ice cream, doughnuts, cookies and coffee cream. Moreover, palm oil is used in household and cosmetic products such as detergents, shampoos, lipsticks and toothpaste.

The production of palm is not one without consequences, devastating the tropical forests in Southeast Asia. The island of Borneo in Malaysia is the most egregious example with 40 percent of its rainforest lost in just the past 50 years, stripping local wildlife of their home. Although tropical rainforests cover only seven percent of Earth’s landmass, they are where more than 50 percent of all life on the planet lives, making them a treasure trove of biodiversity.

In this article, we will look at efforts toward making palm oil production as environmentally friendly as can be, and how one Japanese company is contributing to the movement.

The Palm Oil Conundrum  

Awareness of Sustainable Development Goals (or SDGs) has tripled in Japan over the past two years (according to a survey by Intage), and an increasing number of companies are working to solve environmental issues within the scope of their industry. But to what extent are companies doing this and are they causing new problems by trying to fix the current ones? 

Yes, deforestation due to palm oil production is a problem that must be solved. However, this is rather difficult as this oil is embedded in our daily lives. It is also an important industry for the people of the producing countries. Cutting off all business would mean suddenly depriving the local people of their livelihood.

Furthermore, cutting out palm oil still means using other substitute vegetable oils and those come with their own environmental impacts too. Let’s take, for example, soybean oil. Soybean cultivation takes up ten times more land than palms to produce the same quantity of oil. Switching to soybean oil would result in more land being destroyed and wildlife left without an adequate environment to live in.

The Green Corridor Project

The Borneo Conservation Trust, a certified non-profit organization (NPO), has been conducting biodiversity conservation activities in Borneo for 15 years. They are working to ensure palm oil can continue to be produced and used in an environmentally friendly manner. 

One of the major problems with palm plantations is that they are fragmenting tropical rainforests. This fragmentation in turn introduces new obstacles along the regular migration routes of the Borneo elephants. With new plantations now along the migration routes, elephants are seen as pests destroying crops. The villages and cities where people live are also expanding, encroaching on the elephants’ natural habitat. 

The Borneo Conservation Trust’s Green Corridor Project is all about reconnecting tropical rainforests that have been fragmented by plantations to create large forests, thereby securing undisturbed migration routes for local wildlife and protecting the biodiversity and genetic diversity of plants and animals. 

But did you know that Saraya, a Japanese hygiene company and pioneer in handwashing, was involved in the launch of this NPO?

Saraya and Its Eco Efforts

Saraya was the first company in Japan to develop and launch a medicated hand soap that can both disinfect and sterilize. Since its establishment, the company has been conducting business with consideration for social issues and the environment. 

Saraya’s best-known Yashinomi (palm tree) detergent is a plant-derived detergent that does not pollute the environment because it uses palm oil, as its name suggests, instead of petroleum. It was created in response to water pollution problems caused by wastewater from synthetic petroleum-based detergents during Japan’s period of rapid economic growth.

In 2004, when the ecology movement was just taking off in Japan, Saraya questioned whether the rainforests were being cut down because of their palm oil-based detergent. Eighty-five percent of all palm oil is edible and of the remaining 15 percent for industrial use, with a small percentage used for soap and detergents. Of that, the amount used by Saraya, which is not a large company, is only a very small fraction.

However, Saraya had been purchasing raw ingredients for detergents from a trading company while unaware of the problems occurring in Borneo. Once the company became aware of those problems, it simply couldn’t ignore them. Saraya started working with biologists and environmental conservation experts from a local NPO. Saraya focused on how to solve the problem without completely stopping the use of palm oil and without the adverse effects.

Getting the Borneo Elephant Habitat Back

Seeing how people from all over the world are involved in the palm oil issue, it’s fair to say it is too big and too difficult of a problem for one company like Saraya to resolve alone. This led to the creation of the Borneo Conservation Trust. 

The Borneo Conservation Trust first tried negotiating getting back the areas of land that were once parts of the Borneo elephants’ habitat. However, negotiations were unsuccessful because the local workers didn’t want to lose their business. There is the option to buy the land back, but it comes at a hefty price of at least 20 billion yen. “But if we all work together, we can raise the money,” is what the people at Saraya thought.

Saraya has pledged to donate 1 percent of its net sales of the Yashinomi detergent; the company and its loyal customers joined forces to fight the waves of deforestation in Borneo.

This article is a translation and edit of a Japanese article originally published in SGDs Magazine.

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