This page covers the below sections:

  1. What is Soya and what are the concerns about its use?
  2. Sustainable Soya
  3. Why is Soya used in cosmetics?
  4. What can the consumer do?
  5. Resources
  6. How Can I Use Responsibly Sourced Soya?

  7. What is the Industry Doing?

  8. References

See the Contents for all available Sustainability Hub pages.

What is Soya and what are the concerns about its use?

Soyabeans are one of the world’s most important crops. The beans are a key source of protein for both humans and farmed animals alike(1).

Global production of soya (otherwise known as soy) is estimated to be close to 250 million metric tonnes, 80% of which comes from the US, Brazil and Argentina(2). Production is predicted to rise to over 500 milion metric tonnes by 2050(1).

Soya was first cultivated about 5000 years ago. The beans are rich in protein and contain all the essential amino acids needed(3). It is also rich in plant fats, fibre and several important vitamins and minerals as well as beneficial plant compounds such as polyphenols. The beans are particularly rich in isoflavones(3).

Soya produces more protein per hectare than any other major crop(1). For this reason it is also one of the most profitable agricultural products(1). Most soyabeans are crushed to give a protein-rich meal, oil and by products such as lecithin(1).

The protein rich meal produced from the crushed soyabeans is primarily used for feeding livestock. This can be either as a feedstock for animals that are then consumed, particularly pork, beef and poultry or for egg or milk production. Soya oil is used in food and other consumer goods and as a biofuel(1). The production of biodiesel accounts for a relatively small proportion of the use of soya production(1).

Only 6% of soyabeans are eaten directly, mostly in Asian countries(1). Soya is also used as an ingredient in a number of baked or fried products, things such as margarine or directly as a cooking oil. Soya derived lecithin is one of the most common derivatives and is used widely in processed foods(1).

South America is the largest soya producing area after the USA(1). Soya is the biggest driver of deforestaion worldwide (after beef) and the second biggest user of pesticides in the US (after corn) (4).

Vast areas of savanna, forest and grassland have been cleared for agriculture since the early 1990s. In the first decade of the 21st century soybean production in South America expanded by 20 million hectares(1). This brought economic benefits to the countries involved but biodiversity declined(1).

Legislation such as the Forest Code of Brazil and the Amazon Soy Moratorium effectively stopped deforestaion of the forests of the Amazon for the farming of soya(4) (5). Unfortunately since then the deforestation has moved from the Amazon to the Cerrado(4).

The Cerrado savannah, which neighbours the Amazon, covers more than 20% of Brazil(1) (2), it is the largest savannah region in South America(1). There are over 10,000 species of plants in the area many of which are found nowhere else in the world(1). It is also home to hundreds of bird and mammal species(1).

Sustainable Soya

In 2006 the Round Table For Sustainable Soy (RTRS) was founded in Zurich. RTRS is an non-profit organisation that promotes the growth of production, trade and uses of responsibly sourced soya. It works through cooperation with those in, and related to, the soya value chain, from production to consumption. It does this through a global platform for multi-stakeholder dialogue on responsible soya. The development, implemenation and verificaiton of a global certification standard(6).

Since its formation RTRS has put together various “Standards for Responsible Soy” and developed a certification system. The third verion of the Standard for Responsible Soy was approved in 2016 and included a requirement for zero deforestation(6). In 2018 new RTRS supply chain and production models were introduced along with RTRS non-GMO credits, RTRS non-Paraquat credits, Country Material Balance and RTRS Regional Credits(6).

During 2019 RTRS worked with the European Commission to develop an EU engagement plan. A communication on increasing EU action to protect and restore the world’s forests was published in July 2019(6). Also in 2019 RTRS issued a new version of RTRS Accreditation and Certification Requirements for Responsible Soy Production was approved. This included a requirement for all RTRS certified producers to include in the audit the Chain of Custody Requirments for Producers by 2020. The RTRS Chain of Custody Standard guarantees that all soy brought across the supply chain originates from certified sources(6).

In 2017 major UK companies and industry associations asked for Government support in convening the soya industry to address growing concerns about the link between soya and tropical deforestation and conservation of native vegetation(5).

The UK Roundtable on Sustainable Soya was convened for the first time in March 2018 and then officially launched in 12th July 2018. It brings together significant players in the UK soya market, providing a pre-competitive space for companies and industry associations to work together to achieve a shared goal of a secure, resilient, sustainable supply of soya to the UK, with joint progress monitoring and reporting. The UK Roundtable on Sustainable Soya is funded by the UK Government through the Partnerships for Forests programme(5).

Signatories to the UK Roundtable on Sustainable Soya have committed to soya that is”legal and cultivated in a way that protects against conversion of forests and valuable native vegetation”. Their aims were to publish timebound plans by April 2019 and to have “meaningful and demonstrable progress towards this Goal by 2020” (5).

The UK Roundtable on Sustainable Soya is a key delivery mechanism of the UK Sustainable Soya Initiative(7). The UK Sustainable Soya Initiative is engaging with other similar European based organisations, producer organisations and initiative in South America and soya groups in China and the USA to share lessons and ensure alignment of processes. In their report of November 2019 the UK Sustainable Soya Initiative estimated that 27% of the total soya imported into the UK was covered by deforestation and coversion-free standards, such as that of RTRS. This was a 12% increase since the creation of the UK Sustainable Soya Initiative(7).

Genetically modified (GM) soya was introduced in the mid 1990s, primarily to make soya crops herbicide resistant. Much of the soya used in South America is GM soya(1). GM soya is not grown everywhere; however, both GM and non-GM soya are grown in areas subject to deforestation and clearance.

Why is Soya Used in Cosmetics?

Soya protein as such is not used much in cosmetics and toiletries. The main soya product used by the cosmetics industry is the oil. soyabean oil (INCI glycine soja oil) is high in polyunsaturated fatty acids, particularly oleic acid(8). It consists primarily of the glycerides of fatty acids linoleic, oleic, palmitic, and stearic(9).

A number of derivatives from Soya beans are used by the cosmetics industry, such as hydrogenated soybean oil, soy glycerides or hydrogenated soy glycerides.  There are over 300 INCI names linked to “soy” (10).

The Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) database of ingredient safety reviews lists 32 substances with part of the INCI name being Glycine Soja, most of which are used as skin conditioning agents. It also lists 12 other substances where the INCI name starts with Soy, amongst these are ingredients that act as hair or skin conditioning agents, surfactants, or emulsifiers(11).

Lecithin is often used as a pigment dispersing agent in colour cosmetics, this used to be derived from eggs but in recent years the preference has been to uses soya derived lecithin.

Compared to the food industry the cosmetics industry uses only a tiny amount of the soya beans grown around the world; however, soya beans are still a valuable source of ingredients.

What can the consumer do?

Due to press coverage of the UK Government’s Environmental Bill and the issues of deforestation and clearance, in the Amazon and Cerrado savannah in particular, consumers are becoming far more aware of the damage that growing soyabeans is causing to the environment and biodiversity. Manufacturers and retailers should therefore be ready to respond to questions from consumers about the sources of the soya ingredients they see in the INCI lists on their products, to confirm that  all soya-based ingredients used are from sustainable sources.


How Can I Use Responsibly Sourced Soya?

In November 2020, the UK Government published its Environment Bill(15). One of the leading new measures introduced in this bill will require greater due diligence from business. It will make it illegal for UK businesses to use key commodities if they have not been produced in line with local laws protecting forests and other natural ecosystems(12). Soya is specifically mentioned.

The Environment Bill builds on the recommendations made in the Global Resource Initiative (GRI) Final Recommendations Report published in March 2020(13). The GRI was launched in October 2018 with support from the UK Government’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and Department for International Development (DFID).

In July 2019 the GRI Taskforce, which was made up of senior business, finance, government and civil society leaders, convened to take this forward and to recommend actions that could be taken to “ensure that the UK’s global commodity supply chain footprint on land, natural resources and ecosystems is sustainable, avoids deforestation and other environmental degradation, and supports jobs, livelihoods and investment in resilient and sustainable food systems(13).

It will therefore become a requirement for UK businesses to review their supply chain for all ingredients that are plant derived to ensure that there is full traceability.

Membership of the UK Roundtable on Sustainable Soya requires public commitment to support the key principals of the Goal of the Roundtable, namely “legality and protection against the conversion of forests and valuable native vegetation for soya cultivation” (14).

As the UK cosmetic industry is not directly involved with the importation of soyabeans, the only way to ensure that the soya-based ingredients used in cosmetics and toiletries is sustainable is to insist that any suppliers of soya-based ingredients can guarantee that the soya they use is from a source certified by schemes that support the goal of the Roundtable. Examples of these schemes are given in the UK Roundtable on Sustainable Soya; Annual Progress Report, 2020(14)

What is the Industry Doing?

For many years, the cosmetics industry was conscious of the use of GM soya and the issue of deforestation and land clearance related to the growing of soyabeans has not, until recently, been at the forefront.  It is clear that although we use only a very small proportion of the soya grown worldwide, we must play our part in ensuring that any soya we do use is responsibly sourced and that it does not come from an area that has been subject to deforestation or clearance. 


(1) WWF

(2) Food Navigator

(3) The Healthline

(4) The Consumer Goods Forum – blog

(5) UK Roundtable on Sustainable Soya - efeca

(6) Roundtable on Responsible Soy (RTRS)

(7) UK Sustainable Soya Initiative - efeca

(8) Cosmetic Ingredient Review Expert Panel Safety Assessment of Plant-Derived Fatty Acid Oils

(9) ECHA Information on Chemicals for CAS Number 8001-22-7/EC Number 232-274-4

(10) CosIng (European Commission database for information on cosmetic substances and ingredients.

(11) Cosmetic Ingredient Review database

(12) DEFRA Press Release on Environment Bill November 2020

(13) Global Resource Initiative Final Recommendations Report March 2020

(14) UK Roundtable on Sustainable Soya; Annual Progress Report, 2020

(15) UK Government Environment Bill, 2020