Is Vegan Soap Really Animal and Environment Friendly?


Symbols used to indicate “vegan” products.

If you use handmade soap, you’ve probably seen “vegan” on the label of more than one product. People sometimes ask me if I make “vegan” soap. Well, let’s talk about this!

“Vegan” implies the absence of animal products, including fats, milk, beeswax, and any other animal-derived component. Clearly, if a soap contains tallow, lard, goats milk or whey, it’s not vegan. But is it this simple?

Beyond plant or animal origins

, soapmaking materials have different ecological and social costs of production, processing, transportation and storage. Some oils and fats are generated from byproducts that might otherwise be discarded, such as tallow and lard. I get tallow from my local butcher, who otherwise has to throw it away.

Tallow rendered at home from local butcher shop

Let’s talk a little more about the human and ecological costs of oil production. Many “vegan” soaps (as well as soaps that aren’t labeled “vegan”) contain palm oil. Palm oil is the primary cause of deforestation in Indonesia and Malaysia. Palm oil production kills mammals, amphibians, invertebrates and ancient trees. The effects of this destruction are far-ranging and include climate change and biodiversity loss. Evidence shows that so-called “sustainable” (RSPO-certified) palm oil fails to live up to its claims and is riddled with fraud. This “greenwashing” can make consumers feel better while hiding the fact that rainforests continue to be destroyed, even for palm oil labeled as sustainable.

So, is palm oil “vegan”?

Excavators building a drainage canal between remaining rainforest and charred stumps of recently cleared and burned peatland in palm oil plantation near Sontang village in Sumatra.

Coconut oil is one of the most-used soapmaking oils. Did you know that the coconut industry often uses monkeys to pick the coconuts? Yes, monkeys! They are great climbers and can run up the trees and easily navigate the canopy, where they twist off coconuts and drop them to the ground. Investigations suggested that some monkeys may be treated well, and others probably are not.

A male monkey can collect up to 1,600 coconuts per day and a female can get 600, while a human can collect only around 80 per day on average. iStockphoto

Many human laborers in the coconut industry live in poverty despite the high demand for coconut products.

Choice is powerful, and our choices matter.

We can do our part to support environmental and social sustainability of the products we make and use.

  • Buy Fair Trade. To obtain Fair Trade certification, a company must demonstrate that it meets strong standards of environmental and social sustainability. Yes, it’s more expensive to buy Fair Trade in the short term, but it is also more responsible. Those of us who are privileged to have access to tropical oils can help ensure that producers are paid fairly and that the materials aren’t produced at the expense of other people and our planet.
  • Share and discuss these ideas with friends and on social media. Collective action is powerful and can have an impact.

Make informed purchasing decisions.

Deciding what products to use in soapmaking goes beyond understanding the properties an oil imparts to soap and whether it is derived from a plant or animal. Our choices affect local and global ecosystems and communities. How are our oils produced? What are the human and ecological costs and benefits?

Vegan soap? It’s not a simple question of plant vs. animal!

Let’s discuss this more! Feel free to leave comments and thoughts below.

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