Tide Detergent & The Use of Palm Oil 

Background & The Chemistry of Detergent 

Tide detergent emerged in the 1940’s as one of the first heavy-duty synthetic laundry detergents, “the washing miracle” owned by the massive American multinational company Proctor & Gamble. As the name indicates, synthetic laundry detergents contain compounds produced in a laboratory, specifically alkyl sulfate, a type of saturated fatty alcohol. Alkyl sulfate is a surfactant, the primary building-block of all soaps. From the beginning, P&G has manufactured its surfactants using the low-cost raw ingredients of coconut and palm oils. Alkyl sulfate turned out to be a highly effective surfactant, removing dirt and oils from fabric washed in hard water without leaving any residue. However, the Tide detergent we now use was not revealed until the research department at Proctor & Gamble discovered a way to improve the detergent by “building” the surfactant through the addition of large amounts of sodium tripolyphosphate, a chemical compound which allowed the detergent to effectively dislodge all dirt and grime. Once available to the general public, Tide rapidly became a marketing success, rising to the top-selling laundry detergent and consistently holding this ground for the next 60 years. Through the success of Tide, and hundreds of others, Proctor & Gamble has become one of the largest multinational consumer goods companies in the world. Currently, P&G controls approximately 60 percent of the US liquid laundry detergent market, with Tide alone making up 30 percent of the total market. Furthermore, Tide is the leading synthetic laundry detergent in over 30 countries, and its most rapidly growing market is in Asia. This mass market has translated into the need for thousands of raw material suppliers, chemical factories and P&G headquarters across the world.


Detergent & Palm Oil 

Many of the materials used to create Tide are synthetic compounds with either natural or unnatural derivatives. For the purpose of simplicity and generalizability, I have chosen to focus on the raw materials used to manufacture surfactants, the basic “soap” compound used in detergent. Tide’s ingredient list boasts a total of 26 different materials, five of which are surfactants made primarily from palm oil. The remaining ingredients are mostly what P&G calls ‘process aids’ — these are synthetic compounds produced via multiple chemical reactions. The upstream sources of palm oil for Tide detergent (and hundreds of other P&G products) are located mainly in Indonesia and Malaysia. Palm trees require wet, tropical environments for maximal growth and thus the high concentration of lowland tropical forests and peatland situated within these southeast Asian countries have made them ideal for palm oil production. Furthermore, influential companies within this region have acknowledged the potential capital of selling the timber acquired through clearing forested land for palm plantations, increasing the conversion of peatland forests to industrial palm plantations.

Palm Oil Supply Chain 

P&G does not own its own plantations, but rather has contracts with integrated agro-industrial palm oil enterprises which supply the company with refined palm oil and palm kernel oil for their products. The three major companies associated with P&G are Eagle High plantations (BW), Kuala Lumpur Kepong Berhad (KLK) and Musim Mas. The hundreds of large industrial plantations owned by these palm oil production companies are located across Malaysia and Indonesia on the provinces of Kalimantan, Riau, Papua, Sabah, Sarawak, Java and Sumatra. Secondary sources to refine and process the palm oil are mostly located on the islands of Borneo, Sumatra and Java. Refineries must be located in close proximity to plantations due to the perishability of the palm fruit. After processing, refined palm oil is packaged in huge metal containers and shipped out of the port of Dumai and the port of Jakarta. Massive tanker ships operated by Kalmart and Tradewhich International carry the oil to tertiary P&G chemical plants across the globe where it is processed into the surfactants used in Tide detergent. In the United States, the largest factories which process fabric care products are located in Alexandria, Louisiana and Lima, Ohio. Here the company adds all the necessary chemicals for their special blend, then packages the detergent in high-density polyethylene plastic bottles made from petroleum. Once packaged, truck and railway systems carry the detergent to retail stores across the nation and into the hands of consumers.


Palm Oil, Deforestation & Climate Change 

Palm oil is currently the most widely used vegetable oil — 40% of all vegetable oil production is dedicated to palm oil. It is an ingredient in over half of all packaged foods, used in consumer goods such as detergent, shampoos/soaps and cosmetics, and is increasingly being refined into biodiesel. This exponential increase of palm oil has massively impacted the ecological, social, financial and environmental sectors surrounding palm oil use. In Indonesia, the world’s largest supplier of palm oil, palm oil production is responsible for nearly a quarter of the countries total deforestation and destruction of endangered species habitat. This includes the uncontrolled learning of habitat unique to orangutans, tigers, elephants and rhinos. Furthermore, plantations are often located on peatland, forests composed of carbon-rich soil, which must be cleared and burned prior to palm tree plantation. This process destroys huge natural carbon storehouses while releasing thousands of pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. In 2013, World Resources Institute ranked Indonesia as the second largest contributor to global warming due to deforestation.



The dual impact of large-scale natural resource consumption and carbon dioxide emissions due to palm oil plantations led to the formation of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) in 2004. Although this was a step in the right direction, the RSPO merely put forth voluntary protections, allowing member companies to claim they are “supporting sustainable palm oil” without requiring any strict mandatory regulations or green house has emission policies. Proctor & Gamble has been a member of the RSPO since 2010 and ensures its customers that “we will continue to purchase 100% RSPO certified palm oil.” According to the World Wildlife Foundation and P&G’s own records, P&G uses about 462,000 gallons of palm oil yearly. Less than 10% of this total amount is certified sustainable through book and claim methods. Furthermore, P&G has been traced back to multiple palm oil processors operating in high-risk regions contributing to deforestation and habitat destruction, and its most recent submission to the RSPO do not provide any information as to their commitments to sustainability.


Looking Toward the Future 

Environmental NGO’s, consumer groups, and development companies have recently called for a more comprehensive and set of standards including mandatory regulations. Taking steps toward more sustainable palm oil practices must involve palm oil plantations, traders, corporate consumers, foreign investors/donors and national governments. As one of the largest multinational consumer goods companies, Proctor & Gamble needs to be held responsible for the supply chain of their sources and should be a leader in sustainable practices. Primarily, P&G should either require its palm oil suppliers to implement more environmental practices, or transition into purchasing palm oil from other companies. As consumers, it is our responsibility to be knowledgable about the products we purchase to the best of our ability. Consumer support of companies on the forefront of sustainability translates to shifts within businesses. This includes knowing which materials are problematic and how we can avoid, if possible, purchasing items using such materials. In comparison to other large brands producing ‘greener’ detergents such as Seventh Generation, Method and Green Works, Tide detergent is much less sustainability and contains chemicals we may not want to come into contact with our clothing.



In conclusion, the increased use of palm oil originating mainly from Malaysia and Indonesia is intimately connected with a rise in deforestation, destruction of animal habitat, green house gas emissions and conflict-evoking land grabs. Although P&G is not a direct proponent of these issues, it purchases palm oil for Tide detergent (and other products) from companies without sustainable practices, and thus the companies hands are dirty.