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Washed Clean

The joys and the justice of making your own soap

Delwyn Riordan

Manna Matters November 2010

It is a Saturday morning, and while children run around ovals all over the state, kick various shapes of ball and generally get very grubby, a group of friends gather outside a kitchen in Footscray.  Mixing caustic soda with water causes fumes to fly and we all retreat inside where the work of weighing, measuring and warming begins.  As the oils melt and merge, conversation flows.  Soap, children, ethical purchasing, school, gardening - the topics are as varied as the interests of those in the room.  The one subject it continues to return to is the soap.

 The recipe is simple - coconut oil, olive oil, lye (caustic soda mixed with water) and a selection of essential oils.  The simplicity belies the science of soap making where all oils are not created equal.  We have chosen our oils and ratios carefully to give a soap which will be hard enough to last, and will also lather well.  We have also chosen oils which work well together and allow us to avoid palm oil. 


 Palm oil is one of the most commonly used oils in the cosmetic and food industries, and it comes at a huge environmental cost.  Most palm oil is produced in Borneo and Sumatra, where rapid clearing of rainforest for palm oil production is destroying the habitat of orangutan’s at such a rate that it is predicted they will be extinct in 20 years, with Sumatran tigers also being placed under extreme pressure.  In Indonesia and Malaysia it is estimated that rainforests are being cleared at the rate of 300 football fields per minute, predominantly for the production of palm oil.  According to the World Wildlife Fund, there are alternative sites where palm oil could be produced, with at least 300 - 700 million hectares of abandoned land globally that could potentially be used for palm oil production.

 What is palm oil, and why is it so popular?  Palm oil is an edible oil produced agriculturally from the fruit of the oil palm tree.  There are two varieties of this tree, one originating in  West Africa and the other in Central and South America.  Two distinct types of oil are extracted from the fruit of the tree, with edible palm oil coming from the pulp of the fruit, and palm kernel oil coming from the seed of the fruit and being used in the manufacture of cosmetics.  The palm oil tree is extremely productive, yielding 10 times the rate per hectare of other vegetable oils, such as soybean oil and it is also an extremely versatile oil.  As many as 50% of the packaged food products on our supermarket shelves contain palm oil, though we find very few mentions of it on ingredient lists.

 One of the great difficulties we face in attempting to avoid palm oil in our foods, soaps and cosmetics is the lack of transparency in the labeling of palm oil in the products we buy every day.  Did you know that the descriptor “vegetable oil” could mean palm oil?  As consumers we are placed in the position of actively supporting the unsustainable production of palm oil through our every day shopping without even knowing that we are doing so!  If we were shopping in the USA, we would read “palm oil” on the label and know exactly what we were purchasing, but laws around food labeling in Australia do not require this level of detail.

 Back in Footscray, I’m enjoying melting coconut oil - our coconut oil has come from small communities in the Pacific, where local people grow and harvest the coconuts and then extract the rich, high quality cold pressed oil within hours of the nut leaving the tree.  This crop neither enslaves the grower, nor destroys important habitat in the developing world.  It also smells great as it melts. I picture the small, open shed in Tonga where I watched, eight years ago, as women and men worked together to extract this oil.  First, removing the thick husk from the coconut, then breaking it open and scraping out the fresh, white flesh from inside the nut.  The shredded coconut then warms gently on a heated plate until it reaches just the right temperature and dryness when it is packed into the press and a woman pulls down on the handle until the clear, fresh oil flows into the bucket waiting below, the whole process taking less than an hour.  I remember people working together, communities growing stronger as they add value to this crop which in the past was exported as copra, the dried coconut meat, and value added in other, richer, countries.  I remember the astute business women and men in Samoa and Tonga who work hard to achieve greater independence for their people.

 I also remember other soap making days!  Where friends have worked together to produce something we need, and can use.  Where in a small way we have loosened our dependence on the great machine of industrial production.  When we take back our independence we liberate ourselves from those who would tie us to eternal consumption; of products, of coal based energy, of the skills of others.  Soap making is not hard!  It requires some care, some thought and a few tools but it is well within the reach of most. 

 Something is created when we work together, something which reaches beyond the product of our labour.  I am reminded of a novel I’ve been reading.  Set during World War II, a family has had news of a son missing in action.  The local priest visits to offer comfort but there is something missing between them, they don’t connect in any real way and he leaves feeling that he has not offered something to them, but they to him.  A friend of the family later reflects that the priest has no claim to speak of a son to this family because “He never done a day’s work with us in his life, nor could have.  He never did stand up in his ache and sweat and go down the row with us..”.  While we aren’t sweating over the work of soap making, and our livelihoods don’t depend on it, we are creating much more than soap.  Our common goal connects us with each other, our conversation changes our thoughts spill out, we learn to know each other and ourselves in a different way.

 The other thing I love about soap making is the pleasure of using something that I have made, something that I understand.  I think we use things differently when we know them well, when something has been made through our own effort we not only appreciate it, but we cease to take it for granted.  Soap is no longer just another item I pick off the supermarket shelf, it is something I think about every so often and work for a few times a year.  If we run out of our own soap I feel that.  I would love to extend this thought and care to some of the other things I use regularly, when I think about the things I use in a day there are many that I use quite thoughtlessly; that I couldn’t make and don’t understand.  It seems to me that this disconnection is at the heart of some of the more pressing environmental and social issues of our time.

 Now that my children are home, and covered in mud I’m pleased to have my cold processed vegetable oil soap, free of palm oil and rich in stories to clean their grubby bodies... thank you friends.


Palm Oil Action Group

 Melbourne Zoo ‘Don’t Palm Us Off’ campaign

The Zoo website has a link to a pdf “Palm oil ingredient card” which lists the ways palm oil is most commonly described on ingredient lists.

 World Wildlife Fund

 ‘Truth in Labelling’

Nick Xenophon, the independent Senator for South Australia has introduced a bill to parliament calling for “Truth in Labelling” visit this website to find out more and add your name to the online petition.

 Coconut Oil

We source our coconut oil from Kokonut Pacific; their website tells more of the coconut oil story.