Welcome to the fourth installment of the Pandering & Greenwashing series. Today, I want to look at the brand Palmer’s. Palmer’s, in my mind, is one of those old school, quintessential African American brands. They’re probably best known for their cocoa butter lotion, which smells like chocolate and is super moisturizing. In addition to cocoa butter lotion, they also make coconut oil, shea butter, and olive oil formulations for hair and skin. Palmer’s products come in all plastic containers, but is there more to their sustainability story? Is their cocoa butter and coconut oil pandering to the Black community? Let’s find out!
Table of Contents:
If you’re new to this series, here’s a little background: with my Pandering & Greenwashing posts, I want to examine the ethics of hair and beauty companies. In particular, I look at whether or not companies are greenwashing (trying to come off as more sustainable than they really are) or pandering (exploiting the Black community and Black consumers). This is a sustainable curly hair blog, after all, so these are my main focuses. For a more thorough explanation of what greenwashing and pandering are, check out my past posts in this series. In particular, my Eco Styler gel post has a pretty good overview of both terms.
Let’s take a look at Palmer’s as a brand before we get into the analysis. First, their packaging. Most Palmer’s products come in a white plastic container. A bottle of their coconut oil body lotion touts that there are “no parabens, no phthalates, no mineral oil, no gluten, no sulfates, no dyes” and that it is “formulated with ethically and sustainably sourced ingredients” with a fair trade coconut oil icon. The back of the package proclaims that “Palmer’s is against animal testing” and “family owned and operated” (1).
On Instagram, @palmers feed is about ⅔ photos of their products and ⅓ people using their products (seemingly, mostly paid models and influencers). Of these people, the majority seem to be Black, but not in an overdone, creepy way like Eco Styler. On their website, Palmer’s states that they use “real […] natural, raw ingredients.” They also have a slew of logos and icons that look like logos, including Globa Shea Alliance, Rainforest Alliance, Fair Trade Coconut Oil, Ethically & Sustainably Sourced, World Cocoa Foundation, and No Animal Testing (2).
Is Palmer's greenwashing?
At it’s core, greenwashing is about matching the amount of actual sustainable efforts with the among of “green” advertising and imagery. If a company is making unsubstantiated claims (like we saw with Eco Styler Gel) or is using vague and misleading terms and images, then they might be greenwashing. I do think Palmer’s is doing this, albeit on a pretty small scale, so I do think that they are greenwashing.
Let’s talk about why. Most of their offenses fall into the “vague and misleading” category. For starters, “natural” has no real meaning and “raw” only functions as an appeal to unbased puritan ideas about processed products being inherently bad. More crucially, on their website Palmer’s has made-up icons for fair trade coconut oil, ethically sourced ingredients, and no animal testing alongside legit logos for the Rainforest Alliance, World Cocoa Foundation and Global Shea Alliance. This makes their made-up icons look like legitimate third-party reviewed certifications, but they’re not. (You can fact-check this yourself by reverse image searching the icons. You’ll find that they only appear on the Palmer’s website.) While the three real logos are good sustainability efforts, in my mind they are undercut by this deceptive use. Still, I don’t think this greenwashing is too horrendous because it’s on their website where fewer consumers will see it. Their packaging does not have this and does not make similar claims, so they get off easy in my book.
One more note about their misleading messaging: Palmer’s packaging and website say that the company is against animal testing, but they have NO certification to back it up. I’m not totally familiar with U.S. laws, but I’d guess that they’re legally allowed to say that they’re “against animal testing” without it actually being true. Even though the company says they don’t test on animals, I don’t think we can believe them without third-party certification. A multi-national company should be able to afford such verification.
Is Palmer's pandering?
To know if a company is using BIPOC models in their marketing to exploit BIPOC consumers, I look for two things. First, are they Black-owned? It’s not a get-out-of-jail-free card, but it does lend a lot of credibility. Second, what charitable, social projects do they have that benefit BIPOC communities? If a company is using images of BIPOC people to sell products, they should be giving back to the community as well.
Are they Black-owned? Compared to SheaMoisture (which proudly promotes their Black woman CEO Cara Robinson Sabin as the face of their brand), Palmer’s talks very little about their leadership. The president and CEO of Palmer’s parent company E.T. Browne Drug Co. is Robert Neis, son of board chairman Arnold Neis who bought the company in 1971 (3, 4). Photos of the two are hard to come by, but in the few that exist they would appear to be Rich White Dudes. As with Eco Styler Gel, the faces associated with this brand on Instagram and other social media are BIPOC, but the man actually running the show is not.
What charitable projects do they have? In the U.S., Palmer’s supports the Young People’s Chorus (YPC) of New York City. According to Palmer’s, YPC is committed “to diversity and musical excellence, and today, more than 1,100 children of many ethnic, religious and economic backgrounds participate” (5). I can’t really evaluate the efficacy of their support or the program’s impact of communities of color, so let’s assume the best.
Of the companies I’ve looked into, I don’t think Palmer’s is as bad as Eco Styler Gel, but they’re certainly not as good as SheaMoisture. The misleading sustainability statements on their website make me think that they’re greenwashing, though only a little because it’s not very visible. Palmer’s is not Black-owned, they feature models of color on their social media, and they don’t seem to be making a substantial effort towards helping BIPOC communities either. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that they’re exploiting BIPOC consumers, but they might be a little sketchy.