I have been making soap since the early 1990s and have used palm oil as one of my base oils for many years. Palm oil is produced primarily in SE Asia and is, in many ways, an excellent kind of vegetable oil. From a soapmaking perspective, palm oil has replaced traditional tallow in soap because it makes a very hard bar that cleans well and is also mild, yet is not animal-derived.
Many food industries use palm oil in their products. It is the oil that is most often used at movie theaters for popcorn and in many other food preparations, including fryers at many fast-food chains around the US and abroad. It's very high in saturated fats, but does not contain trans fats and does not need to be hydrogenated, since it is solid at room temperature. The palm oil industry makes claims about its health benefits based on this, but one could hardly call it healthy, since saturated fat is a major contributor to high cholesterol.
Until recently, it was the 2nd most widely used/produced vegetable oil (after soybean) in the world. Palm oil production is a basic source of income for many of the world's rural poor. The oil palm is by far the highest-yielding commercial oilseed plant, which lowers palm oil cost, comparatively. In 2004 it became the most produced oil because of the sudden interest in bio fuels as an energy source.
Because it has become so popular across many industries and demand has grown so much, its a very enticing source of income for small (and large) farmers in palm oil producing countries...often to the detriment of the land and native species. Palm oil production has been blamed for massive deforestation, wetland and peatland degradation and the rapid demise of several species, including the Sumatran Orangatan .
A joint palm oil industry and environmental organization group has formed to try to address the many issues and to make the production of palm oil both an environmentally sustainable practice and commercial industry. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) issues certifications to palm oil producers who meet certain farming requirements. Participation is voluntary and the cost of the oil is slightly higher than non-certified palm.
As a consumer and as a soapmaker it's hard for me to know what to do. I could stop using palm oil altogether in my soap. The best substitute for palm in a soap recipe is tallow (rendered beef fat). That has its own set of issues (future blog post, perhaps?). I could substitute another type of vegetable oil which has inferior properties for soapmaking, but fewer environmental impact implications. I could continue to use palm oil in my recipes and reassure myself that my comparatively tiny palm oil consumption would not have enough effect to do any real damage. Or, I could use only RSPO certified palm oil. Right now, I'm choosing the last route. I feel that there's something to be said for creating a consumer demand for the RSPO certified palm. The palm oil industry is too big and too much of a moneymaker for poor SE Asian countries (and farmers) to think that it will go away any time soon. I believe that our best bet is to encourage (if not force) regulation in farming practices and be willing to pony up the extra money to support the farmers who are trying to produce sustainably. I'll let you know if I change my mind...