It is a truth universally acknowledged that women are fundamental to any economy. More women now make up the global work force than a decade ago, they have more education, and higher incomes than in the past. And women also drive the majority of consumer purchases, whether directly or through influencing decisions on those purchases - to the tune of 83%.
It stands to reason then, that women, as significant players in the consumer purchase arena, have the power to drive an industry, including something as megalithic as the palm oil industry.
The everyday American has a ton of expenses – in addition to taxes, medical care, housing, gas etc. they also spend money on the following: groceries, cosmetics, and soap.
As with any consumer purchase, a sale of the commodity itself means a sale for every ingredient that went into making that commodity. That means, for groceries, cosmetics and soap whenever we drive spending towards that, we are in fact driving spending towards palm oil as it is an ingredient in each of the foregoing. In fact over 50% of grocery products contain some form of palm oil whether it is expressly spelled out on the ingredients list, or innocuously referenced under other names.
Palm oil use is widespread because of its versatile nature, and the applications for it are myriad - ranging from giving chocolates a smooth appearance, to shampoos and conditioners that clean and moisturize. The high demand has led to over-dependence, and suppliers of palm oil work faster and faster in a frenzy to keep up with that human hunger.
So, what’s the problem? Most of the world’s palm oil comes from Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia, and now Africa which is being developed for increased production. And if you’ve been reading the news, you are probably aware that palm oil production is linked to severe ecological concerns, and wildlife endangerment. Harvesting the oil means driving critically endangered species such as elephants, tigers, orangutans and rhinos out of the plantations which are their natural habitat, by a variety of means. These include poisoning and live dismemberment. Fleeing animals who may survive the brutality often end up in the hands of nearby poachers waiting for their opportunity.
Once the oil is harvested, the plantations necessarily have to be burned down to the ground in order to plant new palm trees. The smoke from this so voluminous that it can seen from space - and the sheer amount heats up the earth’s atmosphere. After the ground is burned, the resulting new plantations are a mono-culture devoid of natural checks and balances. Due to the absence of biodiversity, intense fertilization is needed to speed up growth which in turn contributes significantly to greenhouse gases. Where do women come in?
As with most commodities, if there wasn’t a demand, there would be less of a supply. Why are we demanding products that have palm oil? The easy answer is that we are not...rather, we are demanding products regardless of whether or not they contain palm oil. I believe the average consumer doesn’t know the impact of every day decisions on the supply chain. That same average consumer would probably be equally happy with another product that could deliver similar result sans palm oil.
There are differing statistics on who does the grocery shopping in an American household eg. Video Mining indicates that 51% of women do the grocery shopping whereas the Hartman Group states that that 57% of women do the groceries. Although there is variation in the statistics, it is indisputable that women have a substantial role in purchasing items, or influencing the purchase of commodities and thereby can influence the supply chain. If we amplify the effect of this, it could lead to diversification of our dependence on palm heavy items like cosmetics, soaps, and foods, and it could lead us to look for alternatives, and to change high impact behaviors.
Could it be then, that women have the power to influence the palm oil industry? I think the answer is: perhaps not exclusively, but they do have a mighty power to steer it into a more eco-friendly direction.
Julie B: Thank you for this eye-opening post. I could not agree more, Let us, women, use our influence to effect positive change.