The coconut trend: how ethical are your habits?

Coconut is one of the hottest trends this year: it’s in everything from cream cheeses to cosmetics and cleaning products. But can our love of the tropical taste also be sustainable and ethical?

A quick scan of the supermarket shelves and it’s looks like we’ve gone coconut crazy. Aisles are packed with coconut-based yoghurts, cheeses, ice-cream and milk (partly fuelled by the huge rise in popularity of dairy-free options, and ready-made options suitable for the paelo diet). And while tins of coconut milk, solid blocks of coconut oil and cartons of coconut water have been around for a while, coconut is now a must-have, instantly-instagrammable ingredient in baking too.

You can choose from coconut flours, coconut blossom sugars and syrups and tons of coconut oil. For quick fixes, you can head to the ready-made ranges for coconut flour tortillas, coconut sugar aminos, coconut cookies, there’s even coconut in peanut butter; there’s coconut vinegar and coconut jam…

But for those of us that don’t live anywhere near a palm tree, is this a good, sustainable ingredient to eat so often?

What about the coconut farmers? Given that so much of their crop is ending up in our products, are there positive ways to support them and indulgent in the creamy delicious produce?

Main issues

First, it’s one of pay and conditions for those who work on the coconut farms and production lines. Top coconut producing countries include Brazil, Indonesia, India, Philippines, Sri Lanka and Thailand.  According to Ethical Consumer magazine, the majority of Fair Trade Certified coconuts currently come from small-scale farmers (owning less than a few hectares of land) in the Philippines, where about 60% of farmers live in poverty.

An average single-serving coconut water from a leading brand sells for around $1.50 in the United States, according to Fair Trade USA, which has done research into the issue, yet farmers receive about $0.11-0.20 per nut and coconut farmers and farm workers average about one dollar a day throughout the year, according to Oxfam.

Child labour and animal welfare

Individuals, families and entire communities that work in the coconut industry live in poverty. In some cases, children of coconut farm workers are reportedly unable to go to school because their parents cannot afford to send them there. And instead, some of them work on coconut farms, which means that coconuts used in products may have been produced using child labour.

There are also animal welfare issues to consider. In some coconut growing regions, monkeys are intentionally breed and trained to pick coconuts, apparently, the monkeys are leashed while they climb and are badly treated.

Environmental impact

The sort of damaging deforestation practices that are linked with palm oil production are not really associated with the coconut industry. That doesn’t mean, though, that there’s no environmental impact. One of the problems is that coconut is mainly grown as a mono-crop and this leads to an environment of low crop diversity that can be detrimental to the environment. It can also be unsustainable and risky for farmers. For example, in 2013, a powerful storm, Typhoon Haiyan, hit the Philippines and an estimated 33 million coconut trees, across 295,191 hectares of land, were damaged, putting farmers livilihoods at risk, says Oxfam. Generally speaking because some coconut farmers are badly paid, it’s also impossible for them to sustain a crop and replace and renew trees for healthier, productive crops.

What can we do about it?

There are lots of excellent products out there that use ethically-traded coconuts. For example, Suma coconut milk works with cooperatives in Sri Lanka, Tiana coconut products carry the Fair Trade label and Lucy Bee products are certified by the Fair Trade Sustainability Alliance. So, the first thing to do is research what you want to buy.

An online check is a practical way to do this: companies with good ethical standards typically make that information available on the product/firm website.  Some of the best schemes also plough money back into projects to improve lives. For example, Lucy Bee works with farmers who are paid fairly and then, further benefit from the community development projects, paid for by the social premium. And a really great starting point for buying ethical coconut oil is this helpful report by Ethical Consumer.

Use it thoughtfully

Buying the good stuff costs more. That makes sense if there’s also an ethical fairly traded scheme in place so that money filters down the supply chain. But perhaps it can also remind us that in non-coconut growing regions, coconuts may be best eaten as a delicious treat and not an everyday indulgence.


Joanne O'Connell

Joanne O'Connell

Joanne O'Connell is a freelance journalist who writes for The Guardian and The Observer. Her new book The Homemade Vegan is out now. In 2013, she lived without supermarkets for one year.