I consider myself an ecologically informed shopper when it comes to purchases. I regularly buy coconut oil because it seems eco-friendly, but now I’m wondering what the environmental impacts of this product are. Can you help?
– Shane, Keystone
Thank you for your question this week, Shane. There is no question that coconut products of all types are becoming progressively more popular within a variety of industries: baking, hygiene, oral health, hydration and lip care just to name a few. And while we see the many benefits that this magnificent nut can bring, not all of us know what environmental evils lie behind its cracks. By utilizing the following measures, you can decide if the coconut products you are purchasing are environmentally, economically and socially sustainable.
According to a report by Mintel, a global market research firm, coconut oil purchases increased 780 percent between 2008 and 2012. And while this may seem like good news for overseas farmers, we must ask: How much are they really benefiting from these profit jumps? Often, there is a middleman between farmers and the corporation distributing a product. The problem is the middleman increases the sale price of the product after purchasing it from the farmer, so the farmer never — or rarely — sees the true monetary value of the product.
In fact, Fair Trade USA reports that coconut farmers receive about 12 to 25 cents a coconut and anywhere from $72 to $7,000 a year. To put that into comparison, imagine a company sells 100,000 bottles of coconut water a year at $2 a bottle, that’s $200,000, and this number isn’t even close to how many bottles of coconut water are actually sold annually.
However, there are ways you can ensure crop growers receive a fair wage. Look for products that are Fair Trade Certified. The Fair Trade organization works towards improving the lives of small-scale farmers by not only providing a fair wage but also providing education about sustainable farming, water conservation and proper waste disposal.
It should be no surprise that even the coconut industry utilizes pesticides and herbicides. Not to mention, coconut palms are typically grown in plantations.
In the same way that a field planted with a single crop reduces biodiversity and creates nutrient-depleted soil, so does a monoculture of trees. Looking for organic products will support farmers who don’t apply chemical pesticides and fertilizers. However, finding coconut products that are grown sustainably on biodiverse farms poses to be a trickier task.
I can tell you that by doing some research on socially and environmentally responsible brands, you’ll come across companies that take the impacts of their coconut products into great consideration. Harmless Harvest, Dr. Bronner’s and Big Tree Farms are a few examples of businesses striving for sustainability in the coconut by-product industry.
Coconuts and their delicious and homeopathic by-products come to us from the tropics. Indonesia, the Philippines and India are the leading producers, and unless you are traveling and acquire a coconut directly from a farmer or a market, there is no question that copious amounts of transportation — and thus CO2 emissions — are involved.
By using FoodMiles.com, you can estimate the distance of any traveled food item. It is estimated that a coconut from Indonesia travels about 10,162 miles to get to the U.S., and this is excluding stopovers at packaging plants, supermarkets and the drive to your home.
As you might have imagined, there isn’t a direct solution for importing this product sustainably. It is a far-traveled commodity, and if you are determined to purchase food that is close to home, I recommend leaning towards another type of oily product, such as sunflower. That’s not to say we should all immediately halt our coconut purchases, but as usual, shop wisely, and try to keep your coconut cravings to a minimum.
Ask Eartha Steward is written by the staff at the HC3, a nonprofit organization dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation. Submit questions to Eartha at firstname.lastname@example.org.