Sustainable Palm Oil
Should we boycott palm oil?
As part of a wider consumer investigation into the awareness of palm oil including sustainable palm oil, we found that big brands and the public may benefit from the implementation of more education surrounding palm oil farming. There is clear evidence that creating wider awareness about palm oil sustainability and the dangers of avoidance altogether or the use of alternatives would be hugely beneficial. This knowledge would enable consumers to make better-educated choices when making purchase decisions based on brand preferences, environmental or ethical choice.
We found a stark lack of awareness about facts relating to farming and harvesting of palm oil in a sustainable way. Our wider surveys also highlight the fact that not all palm oil is bad palm oil and point out the wider implications, wildlife and human cost involved. Coupled with poor labelling, promotion, slow implementation and management of new standards there is still a long way to go in sharing these standards.
As part of our survey we investigated the level of consumer awareness when it came to the new RSPO eco-label. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was established in 2004 with the objective of promoting the growth and use of sustainable oil palm products through credible global standards and engagement of stakeholders.
We then specifically those who say they avoid unsustainable palm oil to explore how education about the RSPO and evidence against boycotting  affects purchase decisions.
Are consumers aware of the RSPO eco-label?
15% of people said that they recognize the RSPO logo (above left) which is a considerable increase from only 5% questioned in March 2016.  Even among engaged members of the public who appear to be aware of palm oil sustainability (above right) the logo is not well known with 64% of people who say they always avoid unsustainable palm oil not recognizing the RSPO logo.
We asked how they would check a product to see if it is indeed contained sustainable palm oil and only 0.8% of responders named the RSPO eco-label once again pointing to the lack of label use by brands and manufacturers.
Positive effects of RSPO education
Are you more likely to buy sustainable palm oil knowing the RSPO logo?
Having told respondents more about the RSPO people who knew about them do appear to be very receptive to wider education with 68% of people saying that they are now more likely to buy products containing only sustainable palm oil.
Following the banned Iceland advert in December 2018 featuring an orangutan exposure to sustainability shot through the roof and we shared information from WWF-Malaysia explaining issues with boycotting and the importance of supporting companies which use sustainable palm oil.
Part of the message states that It is not palm oil that harms the orangutan, nor another agricultural crop that damages the environment. It is unsustainable agricultural production that impacts the environment, affecting natural ecosystems, reducing wildlife habitats, emitting greenhouse gases and polluting freshwater. For palm oil, the huge demand for its products and massive expansion in the tropics make it a major driver of deforestation and a huge threat to wildlife, such as orangutans, elephants and tigers. Large swathes of land that were once forest, rich with biodiversity and gigantic trees, are today covered with palm oil plantations. Converting forests and burning trees to plant the crop in our neighbouring country has resulted in regular haze engulfing parts of our region. Urgent action is therefore needed to protect these iconic species and the habitats in which they live.
Are you more likely to buy sustainable palm oil given advice from the WWF?
54% of people said that they are now more likely to buy products containing only sustainable palm oil after hearing this advice.
So should people opt for sustainable palm oil or boycott?
Retail giants could also benefit with further education in hindsight with big hitters such as Marks & Spencer and LUSH choosing to shy away from the use of palm oil completely which could, in fact, become more damaging with the use of alternatives to palm oil.
Do consumers prefer sustainable palm oil or boycott?
In another palm oil related survey, we compared the general public (above left) to people we had previously shared information with about sustainable palm oil (above right).
We explained to them what sustainable palm oil is and then asked if they believe it is better to buy sustainable palm oil or avoid it entirely.
Both groups preferred sustainability significantly, and 51% [versus 41% uneducated] of those who we previously taught were in favour of it, demonstrating the positive effect of education.
You can download fact sheets relating to Palm Oil here.
- Chan, H (2018, December 7) Palm Oil Boycotts Not The Answer. Retrieved from http://www.wwf.org.my/?26425/Palm-Oil-Boycotts-Not-The-Answer
- Rosemary Ostfeld et al 2019 Environ. Res. Lett.14 014001