Hands up if you've tried argan oil... 🙋♀️ I'm sure there are few people who haven't. In the last 10 years, argan oil has gone from being a Moroccan cure-all ingredient and goat food, to being one of the most prized beauty oils in the world.
As with most things, increased demand has an impact. In this case, it has the potential to trigger serious social-economic and environmental stressors in Morocco.
What is Argan Oil?
Argan is a tree that bears fruit with an oil-rich kernel. It is found almost exclusively in the semi-desert lands of Morocco. Locals have used argan fruit for centuries as a food source for themselves and goats, which are another common food source.
Photo by Hafida Abousalih on Unsplash
How is Argan Oil Made?
There has been a wave of articles about argan oil and whether it is made from goat poop. It's not... Goats eat argan fruit, including the kernels, which they swallow whole and can't digest. Technically, the kernels can be collected from their poop and planted, or harvested for oil. That's about as much involvement goats have.
Traditionally, the oil extraction process is performed by hand, usually by women. The fruits are sun-dried, the kernels removed and then pressed by hand to extract the oil. This is a process that hasn't changed, so most argan oil is still produced using these historic techniques. One benefit of this method is that it allows for little-to-no waste. The shells can be burned for fuel, and the fruit pulp is used for food.
Photo by Louis Hansel on Unsplash
Environmental Impacts of Argan Oil
Argan trees are an environmental asset. They act as a natural barrier against desertification, preventing soil erosion and protecting water sources, which is increasingly important in hot countries like Morocco. Increased demand for argan oil has put the argan forests at risk of being wiped out. This outcome would have major environmental consequences on the landscape and local communities.
To help protect Morocco's exclusive environment, the argan forests were declared protected as part of the UNESCO biosphere reserve in 1998. This initiative aims to improve the sustainability of the relationship between people and their eco-systems, protecting Moroccan traditions, and the forests.
Economic Sustainability of Argan Oil
The export of argan oil allows Morocco to reach its economic goals in a sustainable way. But, economic success and sustainable production can only be achieved if governments and organizations work with locals to provide support and resources. UNESCO protected trees are largely maintained by the local population. They need the means that will determine the protection of the argan forest, rather than its demise.
Unsustainable over-farming does still occur. While some farming communities only pick fallen fruits, some whack the tree to make the fruits fall prematurely. Some locals will also cut down trees to use for firewood and building material.
Moroccan people in argan regions rely on their local forests for their livelihood, food, and shelter. Without proper economic support, such as fair and living wages, they will always turn to the forest for help. If they are paid fairly they have a greater ability to stick to seasonal bans on goat grazing, which helps protect the ripening fruit and newly planted trees. Dana Elemara, the founder of Arganica, a UK-based supplier of Argan oil, has previously stated that to stop the cutting of protected trees, locals need to be paid fairly, to empower them to protect their forests in a sustainable way.
Social Sustainability of Argan Oil
Before the argan oil boom, it was uncommon for women to work outside of the home, or for their children to receive an education. Women of the family usually picked and created the oil, while the men went to the market to sell it.
There is now a rise in the amount of the argan oil that comes from female operated cooperatives. The money funds health care, education and environmental initiatives that help reforestation and education on sustainable farming. These co-op initiatives empower women with wages, allowing them an elevated position in society and the ability to provide their children with an education. Some schemes exist that aren't co-op based but do pay women fair wages. And of course, at the other end of the scale, there are still companies that exploit workers in the argan supply-chain.
Photo by Jonathan Ford on Unsplash
Should You Buy Argan Oil?
The argan trade is embroiled with a mix of complex social, economic and environmental issues. As consumers, the best thing we can do is to be responsible. Living low waste means questioning how much impact a product has and how much we need it. If you are buying argan products, buy the fairest argan oil possible. Our choice help to ensure the protection of both people and forests, that are part of the argan supply-chain. Look for Fair Trade standards or brands that specifically link to co-ops they are working with. Transparency is key.
- Argan oil: the cost of the beauty industry's latest wonder ingredient
- Why You Need to Understand How Your Argan-Oil Products Are Made
- Argan oil: Morocco's 'desert gold' and the fight for its survival
As always, thanks for reading.