Recently, I got into a lively debate with a couple of my buddies over the merits of vegan/vegetarian/animal fat soaps and being environmentally conscious. One friend is an environmentalist meat eater and one is a strict vegan. Me – the environmentally conscious/naturalist/meat eater.
So we got to talking about the ingredients in soap and low and behold the great debate over whether vegan soaps had a greater environmental impact vs. non-vegan soaps.
My perspective has continued to evolve. I am a firm believer of take from the earth – give back to the earth; waste nothing school of thought. I want to go as natural as possible and limit man-made interference with nature as much as possible. When I first began making soap – animal fat soaps were taboo. The vegan/vegetarian movement started the “Who wants to put animal fat on their skin”? Ok – I can see where that can be off-putting and a fate worse than death for a vegan or vegetarian based on their beliefs and principles. However, let’s get one thing straight. If you reason for choosing a non-meat-eating lifestyle is motivated by environmental protection over philosophical belief – then I must question that logic. Animal fat has been the main ingredient in soap since the dawn of time. The soap making process is the combination of fat and alkaline to create a chemical reaction and wah lah you have soap. So, if you are not opposed to eating meat then opposition to non-vegan soap should be moot. Right?
So – religious and philosophical beliefs out of the picture; the argument is actually between vegetarian soap vs. non-vegetarian soap. Most handmade soaps today use a combination of liquid oils like Olive Oil and hard oils like Palm/Lard/Coconut as the base of their soap recipe. The reason the combination of liquid oil and hard oil is important is to provide a nice bubbly lather/ long lasting bar & conditioning properties. Hard oils like Lard and Palm provide the “long lasting” bar part because of their low solubility.
A lot of the low-cost oils are produced in not so environmentally friendly conditions; Palm Oil for example has led to the deforestation, animal cruelty, indigenous rights abuse, climate change and habitat degradation in places like Indonesia and Malaysia (learn more here). But, I’ll leave the Palm Oil debate for another post.
Use of combination of more expensive hard oils like Babassu Oil, Cocoa Butter, Shea Butter in large amounts would lend a similar animal free/environmentally friendly product; however the cost per bar would become prohibitive for the average Joe. $10 bucks a bar is a little steep for a family of 5 earning a middle class income.
Commercially rendered animal fat (Lard/Tallow); which comes from Beef or Pork, is a meat bi-product that is produced regardless in the processing of these animals and will be thrown away if not used. The argument that animal fat clogs your pores has been scientifically proven to be untrue. So, why not use all that nature has provided? Well, although I have nothing against animal fat; I am more concerned with what’s in that animal fat (i.e. Was it sustainably raised? Was that animal given hormones or GMO feed?) It has been scientifically shown that these “nasties” are stored in the animal fat tissues long after they have been administered, thus are likely in that rendered fat after the fact.
Is this a situation where you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t? Well kinda.
So – If you’re vegan/vegetarian; going with the vegan soap route will support your beliefs, but possibly negatively impact the environment. If you are an environmentalist and go with non-vegan/vegetarian soap you are being environmentally conscious, but may be exposing your family to unhealthy ingredients. If you are super conscientious – you are paying $10 a bar for organic/sustainable/vegan/gmo-free soap.