C16 Biosciences is on a mission to reduce the devastating impact of palm oil on the environment by replacing the substance that’s found in roughly 50% of packaged products on supermarket shelves with a much less harmful product.
The startup, which was founded in 2018, just launched its first product line, a multi-purpose beauty oil aptly named “Palmless.” Their goal is to disrupt the $60 billion global palm oil industry, which has been linked to deforestation and harmful labor practices. The Palmless motto pulls no punches: “No more excuses.”
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While palm oil might sound like a harmless, natural product, two of C16’s co-founders saw the havoc palm oil production was actually wreaking on the rainforest and knew something had to be done. As increasing government regulations require companies to find alternatives to palm oil — or to use more responsible harvesting methods — C16 is meeting the moment with an innovative, science-based palm oil alternative.
The Cool Down spoke with Margaret Rimsky Richards, the global head of marketing at C16 Biosciences, about the problem with palm oil production, the challenges that come with replacing something so ubiquitous, marketing a breakthrough sustainability innovation, and what the company could accomplish in the future.
🧩 Why palm oil is a problem
“Palm oil has been linked to everything from deforestation to human rights abuses to … the displacement of animal populations … to climate change. In removing rainforests and erecting palm plantations, we’re losing major ecosystems and … a regulator of the climate and replacing it with something that is really toxic (manufacturing palm oil).”
🛑 It’s a “shape-shifter”
“Palm oil is found in 50% of products on supermarket shelves, which is staggering, in the beauty industry, the personal care industry, and the food industry; 70% of beauty products contain palm oil or its derivatives. It gives a creamy mouthfeel to certain foods … Palm oil is used in so many different things because it’s a shape-shifter; it’s a quiet workhorse that delivers clear benefits in a host of industries without necessarily calling attention to itself.”
💚 It’s not the product, it’s the process
“There’s nothing inherently wrong with palm oil, but there’s something ripe for improvement in how palm oil is produced. [Potential regulations] are imperfect … that’s why we tried to bio-design it.”
🌴 How their palm oil alternative works
“The non-agricultural palm oil alternative is created from a naturally occurring yeast that we are able to feed and fatten up, then we harvest oil from it. We can then make it at massive commercial scale without deforestation. It’s traceable, it’s transparent, and it delivers the same benefits [as] palm oil without the same impact.”
🦧 Save the orangutans
“The animal most affected by deforestation linked to palm oil is the orangutan. They’re so close to humans, it’s so easy to see the [pain] involved when families are displaced and babies don’t have a home to live in.”
🗣️ Consumers are demanding better
“Consumers across markets are actively shopping for palm-free alternatives. … In the U.S., which lags on palm oil awareness, roughly 1 out of 3 consumers are seeking to avoid palm oil when shopping. [They] are prepared to spend about 33 to 100% for a premium on products that do not contain palm oil, depending on the category.”
💪 What success looks like
“The demand for palm oil is set for exponential growth over the next decade, and the current way to meet that demand is not OK. Success would be seeing C16 and Palmless products picking up some of that demand so it doesn’t come at a cost to the environment.”
🔮 Crystal ball
“We’ve been delighted by and really excited by how receptive the market is to what we are making. We have been in contact with every customer we want to be in contact with. It’s clearly a top-of-mind problem that they are wrestling with — they are looking for science-driven, innovation-driven solutions to meet their goals.”
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