Identity-Preserved, Certified Palm Oil May Help Consumers Make Sustainable Choices

Consumer goods retailers and companies must be open about the source of the palm oil used in their products so that the consumers are relieved of the trouble of making sustainable choices.

That is the main finding of a new study at the University of Cambridge (UK), published in Environmental Research Letters on January 3rd, 2019.

Although the production of palm oil leads to greenhouse gas emissions from peatland conversion, deforestation, and biodiversity loss, it is present in several products, usually unknown to consumers. It is most commonly found in body products, detergents, biofuels, and foods.

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) has made efforts to improve the sustainability of palm oil production by creating an environmental certification system for palm oil. But currently, only 19 percent of palm oil is RSPO-certified. This means the majority that finds its way into products people buy daily is still produced using conventional practices. We wanted to find out if consumers were actively seeking to make a sustainable choice about palm oil. We also explored what extra efforts governments could make to ensure sustainable palm oil consumption.

Dr Rosemary Ostfeld, Study Lead Author, University of Cambridge

The research team surveyed 1695 British consumers via the market research company YouGov. The participants were asked about their awareness of palm oil and its effects on the environment; their knowledge of “eco-labels,” for example, the Soil Association, RSPO, and Fairtrade; and which eco-labeled products are included by the consumers in their weekly household shopping.

It was found that the awareness of palm oil among UK consumers was as high as 77%, among which 41% were aware that it is “environmentally unfriendly.” However, nearly no one was aware of the RSPO label that indicates that a product contains sustainably produced palm oil.

In terms of label recognition versus action, 82 percent of people recognized the Fairtrade label, but only 29 percent actively buy Fairtrade products,” said Dr Ostfeld.

Only five percent recognized the RSPO label—the same as a fictional label we put into the survey as a control. Of that small number, only one percent said they actively include products with the label in their shopping.”

The lack of the use of RSPO label by consumer goods companies and retailers could be the reason for its low recognition.

This may be due in part to reluctance to draw attention to their use of palm oil, or it may be because they fall short of the 95 percent physical certified palm oil content that used to be needed to use the label. Either way, we found that relying on consumers to consciously and regularly include certified products in their shopping has limitations. Our results show that even when consumer awareness of an ecolabel is high, action is not guaranteed.

Dr Rosemary Ostfeld, Study Lead Author, University of Cambridge

The researchers propose a number of policy recommendations in order to address this issue.

Palm oil is more efficient to produce than other vegetable oils and plays a vital role in the livelihoods of millions of people, so banning it is not plausible. Instead, the goal should be to encourage sustainable palm oil production. We recommend governments require consumer goods companies and retailers to buy identity-preserved certified palm oil, which can be traced back to the individual plantation. If national targets must be met with identity-preserved certified palm oil, demand for it will increase. It will also enable unsustainable practices to be uncovered more easily. Companies should also publicly disclose their palm oil suppliers. This will help consumers know if they’re sourcing their palm oil from growers who use best practices. We believe these measures could promote a more rapid move towards sustainable palm oil consumption, and higher levels of accountability throughout the supply chain.

Dr Rosemary Ostfeld, Study Lead Author, University of Cambridge


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