Oil's well that ends well: sourcing coconut oil

Coconut oil is our versatile friend. You’ll find it in everything from chocolate cake to hair conditioner. It’s packed full of vitamins and minerals, and in cosmetics is revered for its moisturising, glow-inducing properties.

One of Lush's direct sources of coconut oil comes from the Indonesian island of Nias, where the coconuts are grown, harvested and processed all by the same company, Sumatera. But how do the coconuts on the trees make it into the oil in products? It all begins with a shimmy - up a 20ft tree to be exact.

The journey from coconut to cosmetics

If you’ve seen the cartoons of coconuts dropping onto heads, you’ll know that coconuts grow high up in the treetops. This means that when they are ready to harvest - that’s around three times a year - coconut collectors must do a skilful shimmy up the tall trees to cut the fruits down with machetes. But don’t worry, although the hardy nuts fall from heights of up to 20 metres, they are protected by their durable outer shells. A good harvest at one of the largest coconut farms can produce up to 15,000 coconuts - each one priced fairly according to size and quality.

When coconuts fall, they are at their prime for producing oil, so quickly getting them to the factory is important. Coconuts remain fresh for up to 3 weeks after harvesting, but their oil has a shelf life of up to two years. Once on the ground, it’s time to gather the coconuts up and take them to the processing facility. A driver collects the coconuts from different meeting points across the area, checks the quality of the harvest, and then pays the farmers directly at the time of collection.

At the processing facility, each coconut is de-husked manually before being split and washed. The coconut flesh is then removed from the shell using a grating machine. In order to minimise wastage and support the community, the de-fleshed shells are given to the locals to remove any leftover coconut for use in animal feed.

The next step in the oil-making process involves mixing the shredded coconut with water and pushing it through a machine to separate the coconut meal from the coconut liquid. It is then left in a warm room overnight, which encourages the water and oil to separate. At this stage, the nutrient-rich water is separated from the oil, and local people are invited to collect what they need to give to their animals. The oil is then ready to be filtered through a paper/bucket system and can be filtered up to 3 times before being packaged up and sent to mainland Sumatra where it is shipped to our UK and global manufacturing sites.

Beyond the palm trees

But coconut oil is more than good for your skin and your tastebuds. 10% of Sumatera’s profits go directly to support the Ono Niha Foundation started by company founder Matt. It is a not-for-profit organisation that provides physical and economic support to the people of south Nias and beyond. Ono Niha funds education, literacy and computer classes for the local children, as well as therapy sessions for children with varying mental and physical disabilities. They also have a dental practice on the island, which provides dental hygiene and full checkups once a year.

Steph Newton, a former Creative Buyer for Lush, explains why it’s important to ensure that ingredients are working for the communities they come from. She says: “There are many considerations we must take into account when sourcing new materials. The social, environmental and financial impacts are the first three that jump to mind.”

“Socially, we must think about the impact we have on the community, the jobs that are generated, and the support, training and education that might be needed. Environmentally, we must think about minimising our carbon footprint and encouraging bio-diversity, reforestation and reducing waste. Then finally, how the community benefits financially as well as contributing to food sovereignty.”

The easiest way to ensure these things is to have a close and direct relationship with suppliers on the ground. Steph says: “Our main point of contact for sourcing this coconut oil is Matt, who is the founder of Sumatera. Matt purchases the coconuts from local farmers and employs local villagers in the factory. He and his team of workers are passionate about providing community support, which can be seen in all that the Ono Niha Foundation does. We are in regular contact with Matt, being kept up to date on production and any challenges they may be facing. On an island like Nias, wet weather for example can cause unavoidable delays to fulfilment. Having this up to the minute info when we need it and direct from the source means we are best equipped to manage stock accordingly.”

“Working with a trusted supplier offers transparency. Having knowledge and confidence that trade is fair right the way through to the grower is the foundation of our work in sourcing, and what we strive towards for all our materials.”

If this article has made you go coconuts for coconut then why not give Coconut Drench massage bar a whirl? Great for you or a partner, simply rub the creamy block over the skin to release waves of hydrating coconut and intoxicating vanilla.

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