Candelilla Wax - As green as they say?

Overhead shot of a waxy pale grey green plant with pink flowers, a candelilla plant in bloom in natural sunlight

Image Credit: Campbell and Lynn Loughmiller

Vegans out there often have a hard time finding replacements for commonplace items; adding on the extra restriction that the item must contain only sustainable ingredients makes it even harder. That is often why our star of this blog, Candelilla wax, and the plant that produces it, Euphorbia cerifera, can seem like a savior. As a key ingredient in our vegan wax wraps, which recently won Tree Hugger’s Best Vegan Wrap of 2021, we thought it would be fun to throw the spotlight on candelilla, and go into a bit of how we source ours.

E. cerifera (or just candelilla) is native to a region that covers the majority of the Chihuahuan desert, growing in arid regions and tolerating rocky soils otherwise unsuitable for most crops. The wax it produces is to prevent water loss in the dry season, excreted onto the outside of the plant to create a drought tolerant coating. Historically, it has been harvested and processed to produce wax, but could also be plucked directly from the candelilla plant and lit as a candle, or be mixed into medicinal treatments (1).

Read the label for gum, lipstick, or any variety of polishes, and you might just find candelilla present. You’ll find it as a crucial component of our vegan wax blend because of its chemical properties. Candelilla wax itself acts a lot like beeswax, having a similar melting point and role as an emulsifier; it’s so similar, that Candelilla wax can act as a direct substitute for beeswax when making an equivalent vegan product (though you may want to dilute or reduce the amount a bit, candelilla makes things stiffer than beeswax) (2). If that wasn’t enough to earn it acclaim, what really sets candelilla wax apart is that the plant itself is protected under Mexican law, by the Sustainable Forest Development General Law (por los personas con fluencia en espanol, y la patiencia por los documentos legales, leer aqui).

Now before you skip ahead of the legal situation, don’t. It is one reason, if not the reason, that candelilla is considered a sustainable crop, because the plant itself is endangered.

Candelilla is protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES, for short), an international agreement signed in 1973. The purpose of this pact between signatory countries is to preserve biodiversity by ensuring protected species aren’t exploited to the point where they go extinct, and is the reason why harvesting is kept under close scrutiny (3).

Before harvesting can even take place, harvesters must obtain a permit. It requires harvesters to disclose how much candelilla they harvest, why that was an acceptable amount, and how harvesting took place, as cutting the plant will kill it but pulling individual stems will not. The law goes further, requiring a technical study done of the area first by a registered Forest Engineer, who must be the one in control of the harvest, and keep records of all harvested with the National Forest Registry. The permit holder themselves is not off the hook for book-keeping, and is required to submit a report every six months describing how much candelilla wax was produced, and every twelve months, provide a description of the conditions of the region. If the eventual seller of the candelilla wax wants to export it, international sales require a CITE certificate from the CITES Management Authority of Mexico, and all documents detailing harvesting conditions must be authenticated and accounted for (3).

Compared to carnauba wax, which is largely produced in Brazil and derived from palm plants under dubious conditions, the thoroughness and accountability of processing candelilla seems like the obvious, and far more beneficial, wax to use. While that is true, it doesn’t mean there is no room for improvement. There are problems with the way the wax is harvested concerning working conditions and materials.

According to the Candelilla Institute, into an iron vat called a ‘paila’ in the ground above a firepit goes sulfuric acid and water. The candelilla plant is added, and workers proceed to stamp it below the water level with their feet; After that, more candelilla is piled on to maximize the process, and iron gates are placed over top to keep the candelilla under the acidic water as much as possible (4). The whole mixture is then brought to a boil, until a foamy wax called ‘cerote’ rises to the top and is scraped off and left to dry in the sun. Cerote still requires additional processing (there are still impurities present in the wax, like plant particles, that must be removed), which is done by simply re-melting the wax and allowing particles to fall to sediment out (4,5). The remaining boiled plant stalks are dried in the sun and used for fueling the firepit later, and the acidic water can be re-used for a few days before being discarded (5). For every 100 kg of candelilla boiled, only 3 kg of finished wax will be produced, and some harvesters try to increase their yield by adding more acid after the initial boil (6).

A few red flags there; The sulfuric acid is an industry standard and has been for as long as candelilla wax has been harvested, but no safety gear is provided to workers. In a 2020 documentary “Beauty Laid Bare”, workers are shown picking up bottles of sulfuric acid without protection, and when saying unprompted that the work is dangerous (7). Stamping down the candelilla often ruins workers shoes, and the vapor from the boiling water causes damage to workers lungs over time (4,7).

Diagram of a paila pit, fire below burning dried candelilla stalks and iron vat of acidic water above containing candelilla to be extracted with iron bars over top to hold the plants below water level
Image Credit: Sharon Roos

Why use sulfuric acid at all? Acid is necessary to the process because the movement of the boiling water will otherwise create an emulsion and ruin the wax (4,5). Imagine mixing oil and vinegar; on its own, the two will never mix fully, but grab a whisk and get to work, and pretty soon you will have a smooth mixture. That is not to say that sulfuric acid is the acid you need to keep the wax from mixing with the water; it’s just the first one that was used.

In 2013, a new extraction method was described by Multiceras (a Mexican wax producing company) that uses citric acid, not only a milder alternative, but also capable of producing a purer yield (8). To quote the president of the company at the time, Raul Marmolejo, the companies, “commitment to social responsibility,” as well as the increasing demand for “natural and environmentally friendly products,” led their researchers to develop a new extraction method (8). This is the type of candelilla wax that we at Khala & Co source, and have done so from the start. Not only is it a more environmentally friendly method, it is safer for harvesters to use.

Multiceras notes, as many others have as well, that the workers in the Mexican states producing candelilla wax often don’t have alternative sources of income, as the region they are in is infamous for its extreme weather conditions. The Chihuahuan desert is arid, and economic activities such as agriculture are difficult to perform. Workers are forced to accept working conditions dictated by outside interest or suffer the consequences of losing their income.

That leads to the second question; where are the workers getting acid anyway? The wax buyers. Interviews in 1976 of two buyers in Texas under J.E. Casner (a wax baron of sorts), are recorded buying cerote directly from producers and supplying them with bottles of sulfuric acid to continue processing; workers were described as farmers and ranchers who processed wax on the side to get a little more revenue (9). There are few people who stick with harvesting candelilla as a main source of income, and the most common way that harvesting takes place is for harvesters to pack in for a few days or weeks, develop the cerote, and bring it back (10). Not much has changed since; buyers still supply the sulfuric acid to processers, which is still the industry standard, and workers are paid a fraction of the finished products market price (7,10).

To make matters worse, in 2010 a loophole was created, where as long as the candelilla wax is retail ready, producers do not need to provide or obtain a CITE certification (3). This means that if a company is not selling cerote, and the candelilla wax is refined and ready to use straight from the packaging, they can by-pass some of the legal framework that ensures the impact on candelilla plants is minimal and won’t threaten its survival.

What is there to do then? Is candelilla just another green-washed product on the market? Before despairing, it is important to note that candelilla is a more sustainable wax than carnauba because it doesn’t require swaths of rainforest destroyed for plantations (which won’t last long anyways, due to the ecology of rainforest soils). The candelilla plant is endemic to the region it is harvested in, and there is a regulatory framework already in place to ensure that harvest of the endangered plant is done sustainably. Provided that certain loopholes are closed, and workers rights are both respected and encouraged, candelilla wax truly is a sustainable alternative. Here’s what you can do:

  1. Ask where your ingredients are coming from! How was this wax processed? Can the seller prove that they bought from an ethical source, or followed all of the steps to ensure candelilla is harvested sustainably?
  2. Demand accountability! If a producer can’t say where they are getting their candelilla from, remind them that they can make no claims of being an ethical company that respects their employees if they don’t take the same approach to workers in their supply chain. Vote with your dollar by supporting companies that are transparent about their sources and their reasons.
  3. Request better working conditions! Ask companies not sourcing ethically to invest in the communities producing their wax by providing training and access to the citric acid extraction method. In 2015, Multiceras provided informational seminars in Mexican states such as Nueva Leon to educate harvesters on their citric acid process (11). If more companies were to invest, more harvesters would be able to make the switch.

If you take nothing else away, remember that initial pressure from consumers was what brought about the more worker and environmentally friendly citric acid extraction method. The next step is to continue to apply that pressure, but also hold accountable companies making claims of ethical and sustainable company practices to follow through. As individual people, vote with your dollar by supporting companies that act on the principles they tout, and put the pinch on companies that don’t. Encourage companies, which often have access to resources and funds uncommon to individual consumers, to improve the lives of the workers providing their ingredients by investing in them. The industry surrounding candelilla has responded to consumer demands before; enough pressure could make them change again.

 

 

Sources

1) https://www.candelilla.org/?page_id=528

2) https://www.theplantguru.com/page/candelilla-wax-vs-beeswax/

3) https://www.candelilla.org/?page_id=1321

4) https://www.texasbeyondhistory.net/waxcamps/techniques.html

5) https://www.candelilla.org/?page_id=532

6) https://www.researchgate.net/figure/Wax-extraction-in-rustic-camps-a-Candelilla-plants-harvested-b-Boiling-the-plants-with_fig2_257776591

7) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-rV7F6zZI-c

8) https://www.candelilla.org/?p=1721

9) https://www.texasbeyondhistory.net/waxcamps/history.html

10) https://irma.nps.gov/DataStore/DownloadFile/522959

11) https://www.candelilla.org/?p=1841

For the nerds: Read up on this archaeological article from the 1980’s about the history, workers, industry, and process of candelilla from that 4th source. It’s a very interesting read, with contemporary interviews that lay bare the motives of the purchasers on the U.S. side (as well as a bit of author bias). It’s also full of pictures of workers, objects found at abandoned candelilla harvesting camp sites, including the worn-down shoes. For a more contemporary source, check out the BBC 3 documentary clip from the 7th source, although it is only fair to warn that one of the interviewers was previously attached with sulfuric acid and pictures of her injuries are shown, so watch with caution.