Wellness Ingredients to Question if Being Sustainable is Important to You

It’s not easy to find skin care products and wellness goods that are pure through and through. It takes a lot of time, energy, and knowledge to dig into a company and figure out whether their claims of “eco-friendly” “ethically-sourced” and “sustainable” are true. These terms aren’t regulated, and a lot of the time used as a marketing tactic to sway earth-loving people like us into purchasing. But here at Apoterra Skincare, we do thorough research to ensure that everything we put into our products is sourced environmentally friendly — meaning there is do our best to ensure that there is no overharvesting and that the farming practices are not harmful to the environment. Our dream is to source all ingredients directly from small organic farms and use packaging that has no negative impact on our planet. We’re getting there. Part of our mission is to educate smart consumers like you!

Susan Leopold, Executive director of United Plant Savers Medicinal Plant Conservation helps shed light on some popular ingredients and green products found circling the wellness market, especially when it comes to sustainability. “Not only is it sometimes impossible to find all the answers we seek, but some of us are also fatigued by the idea that our purchasing decisions may require additional energy beyond what is already represented by our dollars,” write Susan on the UpS blog. It’s true. And fair. As much as I love to research (ahem, I am a writer after all) I’d love even more if purchasing safe and earth-friendly products was an honest game.

So, where to start? First, Susan urges us to define what sustainability means to us. Since it’s become such a buzz word, it’s easy to forget the true meaning, which has to do with making sure natural resources aren’t completely destroyed when harvesting. It also means putting back or growing what we take. Basically, not being harmful to the environment and supporting the earth long-term.

To help determine whether a product is truly sustainable, Susan asks these questions: if this product were continually produced in the same way indefinitely, would this resource disappear or cause other resources or habitat to disappear? Can the methods used to extract this resource ensure that the resource populations and habitats are not being decimated? Also important is to look for transparency in a company. If you see these buzz words on a label but don’t see any information on their website—red flag. For us, we take sourcing seriously and we want you to know that so we use a batch number system to show transparency. We also spell it out via our environmental commitment page.

After talking to Susan, we put together a list of a few popular, but gravely over-harvested, wellness-based ingredients to be wary of when purchasing.

Essential Oils

In general, making essential oils takes a high volume of natural resources—think fields, crops, labor, machinery, plant waste, transportation. In fact, Susan says it takes hundreds, even thousands of pounds of plant material to produce just one gallon of essential oils. “As consumers of essential oils, we must educate ourselves, not just about the company and the end product we are purchasing, but also about the plants themselves and their journey to market,” writes Susan.

Before purchasing, check endangered species list on the United Saver Medicinal Plant website. Sandalwood, native to Hawaii, is recognized as endangered. This is due to lack of regulation on exporting (cough, cough Young Living) and general awareness. So are rosewood and atlas cedarwood, which highlights the need for us consumer to do our homework. For example, in Apoterra products, we source our Frankincense essential oil from Boswellness, a company dedicated to sustainability and community development.

Takeaway: Know that a lot of natural resources and labor goes into making essential oils. Purchase from “least concern” lists and swap your oils for  hydrosols when you can.

Cleansing Herbs

For how freely we use the South American ceremony of energetically cleansing rooms and objects with palo santo, it’s a little shocking that we let it end up on the critically endangered list. In fact, there are fewer than 250 mature adults left. Wild white sage, used in a similar Native American cleansing tradition known as smudging, is listed as “to watch” on UpS. Just last year an arrest was made for the illegal harvest of over 400 pounds of sage from a preserved land in Northern California. These plants have a double X on their backs because they are also oil-bearing and used in beauty products.

So how can we help? Being educated about the overharvesting of these new wellness trends is the first step. Susan recommends remaining current on statuses and the global value of these plants through the IUCN, CITES, and United Plant Savers (UpS) websites. And avoiding beauty products made with these endangered herbs.

Takeaway: Watch endangered species lists. Grow your own cleansing herbs, if possible. Purchase from companies, like Mountain Rose Herbs that are dedicated to keeping endangered plants like Palo Santo alive.

Palm Oil

Palm oil grazes more than our bathroom beauty shelves. It finds its way into our fridge through snacks like instant noodles and cabinets through detergent. According to the Rainforest Action Network, an association that works to protect indigenous people and forests, palm oil is found in almost half of our household packaged products. The plant itself isn’t bad. In fact, it’s able to produce more oil per acre than any other plant. But we just use so much of it.

Because there’s such a high demand for palm oil, the rainforests from countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, Sumatra, and Bornea are being devastated. This is due in part to the fact that the land where palm oil grows is often not regulated. The deforestation has even added species like Sumatran Rhino, Sumatran Elephant and the Sumatran and Bornean Orangutan to the newly endangered list.

But palm oil can be sourced sustainably. Here at Apoterra, we source our palm oil (used in our soaps) from countries like Brazil, which has a Sustainable Palm Oil Production Program.  This program dictates that they use land that has already been cleared (instead of clearing more rainforest) for palm oil plantations.

Takeaway: Be skeptical when you see this ingredient (and it’s many aliases, such as PKO, palmate, sodium lauryl sulfate, and many more). Ask questions about sourcing. When in doubt, don’t buy.

The bottom line: shopping sustainably takes a sharp eye. It takes effort, lots of questions, and maybe a little extra money to get the truly earth-friendly stuff. Is it easier to take words like “eco-friendly” at face-value? Probably. But as consumers (and, hey, small companies like us!) we have the power to impact the market and demand transparency and honesty. We have the power to only put our money where the earth is.

1 comment

Thank you for this article. I’m a member of United Plant Savers and always appreciate Susan’s approach. As a beekeeper also, I’m surprised your skincare company is not addressing the sustainability of beeswax, etc. from managed hives. Although beekeeping is agricultural and not wildcrafting, the sustainability principles and concerns are quite the same. We CAN harvest from bee hives, like we do plants, but only to a point.

Debra June 02, 2019

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