Between the ongoing racial tension around the world, then Brexit, and now Trump, it seems that intolerance is a big theme right now. But our daily routines go on and the best thing we can do is to keep our heads and live our lives in the most harmonious way that we can. So, stiff upper lip and all that; here’s an interracial love story that resulted in a great company selling an ethical product worldwide to increase the quality of life in a West African country. The product, as you may have guessed, is soap.
But before that, here’s a quick low-down on soap. Soap is made by treatment (saponification) of vegetable oil or animal fat with sodium hydroxide, resulting in fatty acids and glycerol, a.k.a. glycerin(e). Some soap makers will remove the glycerin for use in higher value products, but soap is more moisturizing when the glycerin is left in it.
Soap ingredients: Unilever’s Dove
A lot of modern solid and liquid soaps are not made by the above method, instead containing more synthetic detergents, and they don’t qualify to use the word “soap” on their packaging. These products, for example the Dove Beauty Bar, are also subject to less regulatory oversight than regular soap. Taking Dove as an example, a good place to start is by looking at the ingredients. The primary ingredient is sodium lauroyl isethionate. I didn’t know anything about isethionate so I looked it up. Even a basic search on Wikipedia tells you that it’s commonly made from reaction of ethylene oxide with sodium bisulfite, and then a quick check on ethylene oxide would give anyone cause for concern. Maybe this sodium lauroyl isethionate can be made in a plant that has pretty good pollution control in place, but this isn’t a cure for cancer on an infinite energy source they’re making – it’s a bar of soap. Is the risk worth taking? Soap has been as effective as it needs to be for hundreds of years – any future product development should focus on improvements in sustainability rather than function. Another Dove bar ingredient is sodium palmitate (made from palm oil), the impact of which depends hugely upon where and how it’s grown. Unilever joined the palm oil debate early but are now lagging behind in terms of sustainable palm oil sourcing – even on their own website, you can see that only 30% of their palm oil has some kind of certification. It also contains sodium tallowate (made from beef fat) which, together with Unilever’s animal testing practices, may be deal breakers for some. So, Unilever are definitely not taking the sustainability route with Dove – they have taken a fairly low-impact household item and “updated” it into something quite ugly and destructive.
Impact of liquid versus solid soap
Perhaps the first consideration is whether to buy a liquid or solid soap. Liquid soap has a significantly higher footprint, requiring five times more energy for raw material production and nearly 20 times more energy for packaging production than bar soaps do. Liquid soaps also don’t last as long: on a per-wash basis consumers use more than six times the amount of liquid soap than bar soap. If you do choose to use liquid soap you can refill liquid soap containers from bulk suppliers to somewhat mitigate the packaging issue and you can also offset the faster consumption issue by diluting it. I’ve reviewed Dr. Bronner’s liquid soap, which is one of the best options in that category (and is often carried in bulk sections).
Sustainable Soap: factors to consider
So, depending on your priorities, you may want to find soap from a company that doesn’t test on animals and contains simple plant-based ingredients. Soap made from animal fat will have the largest carbon footprint; you could argue that it’s just a waste product from the slaughterhouse, but it does still contribute to the market economics of meat. Soap made from olive oil (named Castile soap after the region in Spain where it has been made going back over 500 years) is a good choice, and so is coconut oil soap; both olive trees and coconut palms have low water, fertilizer, herbicide and pesticide needs. I would avoid soaps made from palm oil by large corporations, but in the case of smaller soap makers that responsibly source their palm oil from specific communities there may be positive environmental (palm oil’s very high yield) and social (community development) impacts. The Guardian is covering the palm oil development in Africa, as it expands beyond the West African nations where it natively grows. It’s also worth considering whether the plant was sustainably or organically grown; organic products are not just important for eating – the main impact is on the soil, wildlife, and planet as a whole. Then there’s the important issue of whether ingredients like shea butter or cocoa butter are certified as Fair Trade or the equivalent; the social impact of these ingredients has a wide range, with child slavery at one end and community empowerment at the other. Then take a look at the packaging and the broader impact of company operations.
Eco-friendly bar soaps
That’s a lot of stuff to consider! But a lot of those factors are obvious from the get go – just from the ingredients and information on the packaging. To go a bit deeper into company operations, take a look at Dr. Bronner’s impact report and click on the images to see the depth of detail and transparency they provide. They also have in depth information on each ingredient, such as this program to promote peace by sourcing olive oil from both Arab and Jewish farmers in the Middle East. Kiss My Face is also a decent company (I’ve reviewed their Olive Oil and Lavender Soap) but need to provide more detail on their company operations. There are several brands (like Nubian Heritage in Africa or Auromere in India) that support community development and poverty alleviation – I’ll update this with links to reviews soon. A great example in this category is the company founded by the two people pictured above – Alaffia.
Alaffia Soap: Social Impact
Alaffia came about when Prairie Rose Hyde, originally from Idaho, went to Togo (West Africa) with the Peace Corps and met with Olowo-n’djo Tchala, who was working with his mother on their farm having earlier left school because he couldn’t afford it. They became partners in both senses of the word and formed Alaffia as a non-profit company to create a better quality of life in Togo. Their soaps are made using Fair For Life certified ingredients purchased through women’s cooperatives, and one of them (Good Soap) is now the in-house soap for Whole Foods, sold with no packaging other than an optional recycled paper bag. You can read about their empowerment projects here and fairly widely in the media.
As of last count sales of Alaffia products have distributed 7,100 bicycles, donated 14,200 eyeglasses, provided school supplies to 23,700 recipients, built 1,855 school benches, planted 53,125 trees and constructed 10 schools, among other things. Through their Maternal Care Project, Alaffia has funded 4,142 births in Togo and saved many lives in the process. The maternal mortality rate 10 years ago was one in 16. Now with our program it’s two in 1,000. – Prairie Rose Hyde. Source: Thurston Talk.
Here’s their story (it’s worth watching):