• Melanie S. Demmer

Plastic-Free July: An Exercise in Reading Beyond Plant Based

Updated: Jul 25

It’s easy to correlate the term plant-based with the term eco-friendly. Don’t they always go together? Plant-based and eco-friendly. Just like cruelty-free. And…vegan. Plant-based/eco-friendly/cruelty free/vegan…[fill in the blank]. Aren’t those terms always grouped on packaging? Along with Certified Organic?

Frequently, yes. However, we have become so accustomed to seeing them listed together, we’ve started assuming they are interchangeable. When we do this, we stop thinking like suspicious, discerning, questioning consumers and just take our eco-friendly, plant-based, cruelty free, organic products at face value—even when we would know better if we really thought about it.

What does this have to do with Plastic-Free July? Nothing…or does it?

I’ve been gradually attempting to reduce my plastic intake over the years. I’ve already given up buying water in plastic. I take my own shopping bags or grab a box or a compostable bag, which the grocery stores I shop at offer along with boxes from unpacked inventory instead of plastic bags, and the city I live in implemented a required additional charge for plastic bags several years ago. But still, there seems to be too much plastic in the recycling—and what actually gets recycled is dubious.

In terms of my own plastic-packaging purchases, cosmetics and toiletries especially bother me. I like the idea of refillables, but it’s an errand on my list that doesn’t seem to happen. Six or so months ago, however, I did switch to hand soap tablets for use in a refillable dispenser, avoiding the numerous plastic bottles of hand soap. So, for this July, as my hair product supply begins to dwindle, I thought it’d be a good idea to finally try shampoo bars and started shopping around for brands online.

Then I found a brand that I happened to notice had an additional term listed on the label. Plant-based, cruelty free, eco-friendly…and No Palm Oil.

I love seeing this label, and often I remember to check for it, but I spent an uneasy moment realizing that its inclusion likely means that most shampoo bars probably do contain palm oil. I began searching the web for more information. Are all those shampoo bars people are happily switching this month making the palm oil problem worse? Is it a solidifying agent that is increasing the demand?

Probably, most people familiar with the perils of palm oil learned of them through environmental documentaries, such as Harrison Ford’s episode in Years of Living Dangerously, and know that palm oil, due to high demand (it's a common ingredient in food items and cosmetic and toiletries) has a problem with black market sales, which translates to illegal rainforest clearing. Orangutans are among the many animals who suffer as a result.

Here’s where plant-based and vegan get tricky as greenwashed terms. Greenwashed generally refers to marketing tactics that give a product an appearance of being more “green” (i.e., Earth friendly) than it actually is. It’s so easy to select a plant-based lip balm or a vegan bouillon cube and think that you have all the bases covered. Palm oil of an unknown source could still be in products labeled all natural, plant based, vegan, organic, and cruelty free. It might not even be listed as palm oil since ingredients derived from it go by many names, as I recently learned, from something that sounds like it originated in a lab, like Sodium Laureth Sulfate to innocuous-sounding ingredients like glycerine and vitamin E.

However, I haven’t found any research or articles suggesting that shampoo bars are creating more demand for palm oil (if you know different, please drop your research source into the comments), and it’s not too difficult to find brands of shampoo, body butter, lip balm, and body wash that have intentionally avoided palm oil all together—they might even be easier to find in bar form. So, we don’t seem to be regressing in that way with a plastic-free campaign.

But those of us wanting to ensure that our products are as sustainable as we can find could take the reminder that each term on the label is important, and plant based or vegan doesn’t tell us everything we need to know—it tells us that beeswax and other direct animal biproducts are not included. Unless the packaging specifically says something like “orangutan safe” or “forest friendly” or “ethical palm oil” it’s probably best to assume that the oil in question is of unknown origin.