Sustainable palm oil choices should be easier for consumers to make

A new study from the University of Cambridge has found that consumer goods companies and retailers need to be more upfront about where the palm oil in their products comes from.

The University of Cambridge researchers surveyed nearly 1,700 British consumers about their awareness of palm oil and its environmental impact, how well they recognize ‘ecolabels’ such as FairTrade and RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil), as well as which ecolabelled products they included in their weekly household shopping.

They found that while UK consumer awareness of palm oil was high (77 per cent), with 41 per cent aware of palm oil viewing it as environmentally unfriendly, almost no consumers were aware of the RSPO label, which shows if a product contains sustainably produced palm oil.

“In terms of label recognition versus action, 82 per cent of people recognized the Fairtrade label, but only 29 per cent actively buy Fairtrade products,” said Dr Rosemary Ostfeld, the study’s lead author.

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

According to Dr Ostfeld, the reason behind the low recognition of the RSPO label could be that consumer goods companies and retailers are reluctant to use the label because they do not want to draw attention to their use of palm oil or because they fall short of the 95 per cent physical certified palm oil content 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.”

The researchers have made several policy recommendations to boost awareness of sustainable palm oil, including using identity-preserved certified palm oil that can be traced back to the individual plantation and publicly disclosing palm oil suppliers.

Image credit: Mokhamad Edliadi/CIFOR via Flickr

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