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Why Would a Vegan Boycott Earth Balance?

December 23, 2009

A year and a half ago I wrote a post about palm oil. It was a post I delayed writing, an issue I delayed researching, because I feared the answer. Vegans love to love Earth Balance, which means we hate to hate palm oil. (But we must.) I have since become the palm oil (and “pretty please help me find a way to still have my Earth Balance”) expert to vegans, or so people seem to think. (I am not an expert, and I look to RAN for a lot of my information. They are the rainforest experts, for me!)

I continue to do research based on the latest hopeful solution that people come up with and ask me about in the comments on that old thread. (So far, no good news.) I also recently got my hands on a fairly candid email between an Earth Balance exec and a friend of a friend. In the end all that is worth sharing from that email is that EB sources their organic palm from AgraPalma, and that EB would love to source all of their palm from AgraPalma but that the finances aren’t there to do so, and neither are the logistics (whatever that means).

For more detailed information on the questions regarding EB’s canned reply to inquiries (“our palm is okay because we use peninsular Malaysian palm, which has no orangutan habitats”) or the source of their organic palm, AgraPalma, please go to my original post and read through the post and the comments. There is more to both questions than I can possibly recap here, in this already-too-long post!

Today Mary pointed me to an article on the fight indigenous people have been losing for decades on this and related issues. The article is worth reading in its entirety, but here are a few snippets to ponder:

The case, known to some as the ‘Amazon Chernobyl’, involves 30,000 indigenous Ecuadorian plaintiffs. The toxic spill impacted six indigenous tribes, one of which has vanished entirely. The court has found that over 1,400 people have suffered untimely deaths from cancer due to contamination from the oil spill.

Despite these facts, Chevron has gone to great lengths to avoid reparations for environmental damage. In 2008 it was revealed that Chevron hired key political players, including former Senate majority leader Trent Lott and John McCain fund-raiser Wayne Berman to lobby United States Trade Representative Susan Schwab, members of Congress, and Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte to threaten suspending US trade preferences with Ecuador until the lawsuit was dropped. But the corporation’s attempt to use US political power to disenfranchise 30,000 indigenous people failed.

Then this September Chevron released a video that it said proved Ecuadorian officials, including the presiding judge, were taking bribes on the case. However, the video turned out to be a fake: the business man in the video is in fact a convicted drug felon and another person in the video is an Ecuadorian contractor who has received payments from Chevron. Both the bribe and the bribers in the video were faked and others appearing in the video say the footage was heavily edited. Chevron denies that they were in any way involved in making the video.

The lawsuit has been ongoing since 2003 and a ruling has not yet been made. But Chevron has stated publically that even if it loses the case it won’t pay any damages.

“We’re not paying and we’re going to fight this for years if not decades into the future,” according to Chevron spokesman Don Campbell.

I’m going to be keeping this in mind on the days I wonder why I bother bike commuting.

Across the world, another people are fighting to save their homes from corporate exploitation. The Penan people of Malaysian Borneo have suffered greatly from industrial loggers entering their ancestral home: not only has the tribe lost forest land and important tribal sites, including burial grounds, to bulldozers and chainsaws, but the Penan people have faced violence, rape, and even alleged murder.

The struggle began when industrial logging first appeared in the area in the 1980s and today shows no sign of abatement or resolution. In fact, a new threat has risen in recent decades as logged forests are swiftly turned into industrial oil palm plantations, excluding any chance of the natural forest returning after logging or of natives receiving their land back.

Palm oil strikes again. And though this story is specific to Malaysia, the rainforest in South America is still being cut at alarming rates, with the same devastating impact to the people, animals and environment, and palm oil is one of the culprits. Of course, the world’s beef addiction shares a large part of the blame as well.

The mongabay article concludes (in part):

Despite the repeated unjustness, rarely do these stories reach the mainstream media in the industrial world. Companies act with impunity, devastating forests and homes in part to feed the insatiable appetites of developed and emerging economies for furniture, oil palm, gas, and crude oil.

And the sad reality is that it is not just these products, or the issues mentioned in this post, that are the issues. Environmental, social, and animal issues usually go hand in hand, and that’s something I find incredibly important to keep in mind, no matter what I am researching. These issues bleed together, literally, until it is hard to see where one ends and the other begins.

To answer the question posed in the title of this post: I boycott Earth Balance (and all products using palm oil) because I can easily live without it. It is a luxury item that uses a devastating ingredient and that puts it on the wrong side of the line my ethics draw in the sand.

26 Comments leave one →
  1. Olivia permalink
    December 24, 2009 1:55 am

    Deb,

    What a helpful post. I had stopped eating E.B. a year or two ago because I got sick of it (I overused it and it seemed a bit overpriced), and I switched to Smart Balance Light (or something like that). But it’s rather tasteless, so before Thanksgiving I bought a single tub of E.B. and liked it again. Now, thanks to you, I’ll switch BACK to S.B.L. with alacrity.

    Not only do I see how all the issues you describe intersect, I also think the underlying ingredient fueling this destruction of peoples, animals and natural habitats is the false belief that life is material, thus finite and subject to lack and limitation. This paradigm causes people to be superstitious, greedy, fearful, prideful — full of self. But those who have learned that an abundance of good, unselfish thoughts and deeds are the recipe for a happy life, aren’t plagued by greed and other self-centered tendencies. Earth needs the scales to tip in favor of constructive, giving hearts; when that happens, the destruction of our planet will subside, and be reversed. That’s my 2 cents, anyway. [P.S. I admire your bike commuting. I work at home, don't own a car, and walk everywhere, with the occasional bus trip or ride in a friend's vehicle.]

    • December 24, 2009 3:55 pm

      I admire your carlessness! I bike commute, but I still have a car, and still use it once or twice a week. (I volunteer weekly at a local sanctuary, and it’s 35 miles each way.)

      It’s true, we often get responses that make it clear that people don’t think there is anything wrong with doing something now that will cause problems in a generation. I also wonder sometimes if people really get that the earth is a closed system with finite resources. We can keep extracting and exploiting and destroying until we’ve used everything up, and then we all die. It’s so illogical!

  2. December 24, 2009 6:19 am

    Thanks for posting on this, Deb. Earth Balance is such a combo-grande of bad news, and most vegans know it only for its one bit of spectacularly good news (“It’s like butta!”).

    Just don’t tell me I have to boycott coconut oil, because I don’t know if my dessert-making would recover from that one.

    • December 24, 2009 3:58 pm

      I did do some research on coconut oil on the old thread. Here’s what I found out then:

      Based on what I’ve found so far, I believe that coconut is a pretty good alternative, if one is careful in sourcing it.

      There are programs on a village and low-tech level that look like they purely benefit the local people, the women in particular: http://www.wwfpacific.org.fj/where_we_work/solomons/what_we_do/kekoro_womens_project.cfm

      It isn’t specified whether there’s any coconut cultivation necessary though.

      Coconut oil has allowed Bouganville to survive despite a 7+ year blockade against them in a little known and very bloody war in the pacific: http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-1192286025577999101

      But that doesn’t say much about our consumption of it!

      Based on this article, it is clear that large scale production of coconut oil can have many of the same negative aspects as of the palm oil: http://www.fao.org/docrep/T0719E/t0719e04.htm

      The production of coconuts on a commercial scale will help alleviate the critical shortage of edible oils. Coconut oil is the staple of the rural population but because of lethal yellowing, the government has had to import large quantities of edible oils using scarce exchange reserves.

      The processing of both bananas and coconuts will produce substantial volumes of effluent. The bananas that cannot be exported or sold in local markets will be fed to pigs whose effluent waste will be dumped unprocessed into the nearby river. Coconut oil extraction will produce by-products that have no current use and will be dumped into the environment.

      The environment will be altered radically by the installation of a tropical fruit production industry. The vegetation will be clear cut not only between the plots in the formerly cropped valley, but also on the hills and mountainsides. The flora will be destroyed and the fauna will retreat into the already ecologically severely affected mountainsides’ many of which have been cleared as coffee production has moved to cover the higher elevations.

      There is some fair trade coconut oil available, though again the information on the environmental aspect is fairly scarce. I found a company that has developed affordable technology for villagers to extract coconut oil: http://www.kokonutpacific.com.au/

      They bring up some points about coconut oil that do make it seem like purchasing coconut oil from these types of groups is getting coconut oil from existing trees, resources that are already there and available for the local people, rather than clearing areas to plant the trees for big commercial enterprises.

      So…my conclusion is that coconut oil is likely a good choice with sustainable environmentally and socially friendly options available. But, as with anything, not all coconut oil comes from responsible or ethical companies or people.

      • December 25, 2009 6:36 pm

        Thanks.
        I do use Babycakes’ book frequently, and coconut oil is pretty common so it’s good to know that with a bit of research I’ve got a better option.

  3. December 24, 2009 6:35 am

    Thanks for the reminder, Deb. I’d read about EB and palm oil, but basically threw up my hands in frustration. Mind if I ask what you use instead?

    • December 24, 2009 4:14 pm

      I don’t generally use anything in place of EB, but that’s a statement that needs some qualifications.

      Dreena Burton’s cookie recipes have always been EB free (or most of them are) and I’ve always loved her cookie recipes, so in that sense I didn’t need a replacement. There are lots of other cookie recipes out there that don’t use EB.

      For things like toast or waffles, I just skip it. I have pb or almond butter on my toast, I can make a maple glaze kind of thing for the waffles or just use maple syrup.

      Frosting gets a bit tricky, but there are a few recipes out there for EB free frosting (I think there’s one in Babycakes and I’d have to look around for the one or two others I’ve seen). They rely on coconut oil (or coconut butter? can’t remember), which I think is mostly okay, but I’d still be careful about sourcing it.

      I can’t think of other times that EB would specifically be called for, but if I’ve missed something, let me know! There are other vegan spreads, though the only one I can think of is Spectrum’s. I don’t think it is as tasty (based on what I’ve heard others say, I don’t think I’ve ever tried it myself), but should be worth trying if you want to have a vegan buttery spread on hand.

  4. December 24, 2009 4:59 pm

    I’ve seen this powdered product listed as an EB palm-oil-free sub, tho I haven’t tried it:

    http://is.gd/5AvBo

    I would guess, if tasty, the powdered “butter” could be added to cake frostings and then use well-sourced shortening for the “butter”?

    There’s also this one, but, tbh, it doesn’t look so good. bad picture, maybe??

    http://is.gd/5AvTI

  5. December 24, 2009 9:02 pm

    I have only bought Earth Balance once, and that was just to try it out. My usual shopping list just doesn’t contain palm oil, so I haven’t given it much thought before. But I will have to remember to avoid Earth Balance from now on in case I would ever think of buying it again. By the way, if you haven’t seen No Impact Man yet, I highly recommend it. This film is very inspiring and makes me want to one day avoid buying packaged foods altogether, if possible.

  6. Pat Cuviello permalink
    December 28, 2009 12:38 am

    Thanks for this educational post on palm oil. I just want to point out that EB is not the only vegan place to find palm oil. It is in just about every Vegan pastry and cookie you can buy. Additionally, a good deal of Vegan soaps use palm oil and a lot of Soymilk brands use Palmitate, to add vitamin A. Non-palm oil products are out there. My partner and I have had to shop around to find palm-free soaps, soymilks, frozen deserts and other products that don’t have palm oil, but labels need to be read. When I make cookies I use Organic Canola Oil.

    • December 28, 2009 6:16 pm

      Thanks Pat, it’s a good reminder. Earth Balance remains the biggest issue for vegans, but that’s not to say that we can ignore palm in other products. Feel free to make note of the brands you’ve already vetted. I’m sure it would help people to know where to start.

      I’ve always preferred products that have a short readable ingredient list, and happily those are usually the brands that are palm free too.

      For non-dairy milks, I think Eden and Pacific are probably all free of palm. I can’t remember if I looked at all of their varieties, but anything I’ve looked at from either of them have been palm-free. And Manitoba Harvest has a palm free hemp milk too.

      The same pattern is true of soaps and other household things also, with the short and readable ingredient list.

      I can’t remember for the frozen desserts, I don’t get those often.

  7. January 27, 2012 3:38 pm

    Hello, it’s a shame so many recipes use butter, it’s completely replaceable with oil. I am making cookies raw, I find they taste better and it’s more interesting, uses nuts instead of oil.

    • January 27, 2012 6:57 pm

      I agree, Rennie, I use oil in recipes that call for Earth Balance and it works great. The only thing that it doesn’t work for is frosting…and even then, there are loads of EB-free recipes as long as you don’t insist on buttercream-style frostings. I don’t think it’s a big deal at all to give up one luxury food item!

  8. June 1, 2012 6:29 pm

    Sadly Earth Balance are v defensive about this instead of accepting that palm oil is really bad.. See their comment on this article.. http://www.onegreenplanet.org/lifestyle/guide-vegan-products-and-palm-oil/
    But, it’s a useful guide for supporting companies that don’t use palm oil.

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  10. shaoperd888 permalink
    July 21, 2013 11:55 am

    http://www.earthbalancenatural.com/responsibility/palm-oil/

    Looks like they have fixed it

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  12. Kayla permalink
    December 19, 2013 10:57 am

    Good, I’m glad they fixed it because they have been super helpful to me in my new quest to adopt a vegan diet and hopefully become a vegan period. I really love them and have already been let down by finding out Silk is owned by Dean :((( I really liked Silk soy yogurt, too. :(( And I like my Earth Balance!

  13. Pat Cuviello permalink
    December 19, 2013 1:15 pm

    I have been avoiding palm oil products and just recently found out that Vitamin A palmitate, found in a lot of non-dairy milks, can be sourced from synthetics, which apparently is cheaper than extracting it from palm fruit. However, each company needs to be contacted to find out their source.

    • December 19, 2013 4:57 pm

      That’s really good to know, Pat, I didn’t realize! Have you contacted any companies yet?

      • Pat Cuviello permalink
        December 19, 2013 6:19 pm

        My friend contacted Blue Diamond Almond Milk and they said they use synthetic vitamin A palmitate. I contacted Kirkland and have been re-routed but have not yet received a reply.

      • December 19, 2013 6:49 pm

        Great! I’m going to contact So Delicious.

      • Pat Cuviello permalink
        December 20, 2013 4:07 pm

        Hi Deb – This is the response we received from Costco regarding Kirkland organic soymilk: “We appreciate you taking the time to email Costco Wholesale. We received the following from our buying staff regarding your inquiry: The Vitamin A used in the Kirkland Signature Organic beverages is derived from plants in the form of Citral: a yellow volatile liquid with a lemon-like odor, found in oils of lemon grass, orange, and lemon. This Citral is derived from lemon-grass oil and used in synthesis of vitamin A.” It appears their palmitate is synthetic.

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  1. Weekly recipe round-up: 9/3-9/10 | Vegtastic
  2. What to use instead of butter : veganism.com

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