Lucy Siegle, writing in The Observer, weighs into the debate over Argan oil and takes an interesting ethical perspective. Argan oil is probably one of the most over-hyped products in the last decade. The unethical nature of some of the pharmaceutical companies created an uproar when they tried to copyright names such as "Moroccan Oil". Now things are turning around and some of the companies are realising an ethical approach is much better for their image. Of course this will not stop the nonsense talked about argan, or the greed and extreme over-pricing (See our story here).
As Siegle points out, the surge in popularity of argan oil coincides with the decline of the argan forests. Until recently the only place these trees grew was in southwest Morocco. As we reported recently, the Israelis are now trying to muscle in on the boom and appear to have managed to grow a small plantation but while it may have a high yield, the quality is yet to be proven. Since time immemorial the pips from the fruit were pressed by hand by Berber women – no mean feat as the kernels are 16 times harder than a hazelnut. Argan oil supports 2.2 million people living a subsistence existence in rural regions. It is vital both economically and culturally.
Zoubida Charrouf, Professor in the Science Faculty at Mohamed V University in Rabat, is hugely admired for her approach to saving both the argan trees and the women who earn a living from it.
"I didn’t know that I bothered people ... well, I knew that I did, but I didn’t know quite how much. People reproach me three things. They reproach me for having helped women get out of the house. They reproach me for having improved the extraction of argan oil. And they reproach me for being interested in a tree that belongs to ordinary people, not to academics." - Zoubida Charrouf
A responsible brand will be able to tell you where its argan is from and might have formed an oil production centre with cooperatives. Some cosmetic firms, chastised for patenting various properties of argan oil, have tried to make good – L'Oréal has a responsible sourcing policy and works with co-operatives. This is the way forward if the real producers are to capitalise sustainably on argan oil's popularity.
Siegle also notes that the Moroccan government is intent on trippling the oil production from the forest region that is now protected as a Unesco Biosphere Reserve. Since 2009 only oil produced here and using some artisanal production can be sold as argan oil. But beware; you will see some argan oil euphemistically called Moroccan oil: this is likely to be the cheap version from private industrialised plants favoured by much of the personal-care industry. Argan pips are bought in bulk by middlemen, oil extracted using solvents, and labels attached depicting Berber women hard at work. In reality there's no benefit sharing going on.