Sustainable palm oil: Tackling the consumer awareness challenge

24 May 2020

Palm oil has some major image problems, but its production is essential to the livelihoods of many smallholders and processors in Southeast Asia and elsewhere. How can western consumers be convinced that sustainably produced palm oil is an ingredient worth supporting?

For many years, the palm oil industry has been linked to deforestation and shrinking habitats in countries like Indonesia and Malaysia, but efforts to increase sustainable production appear to have had little effect on consumers’ poor impression of the ingredient. In Europe in particular, many shoppers continue to associate palm oil with environmental destruction and prefer “palm-oil free” products, despite sustainably produced palm oil having huge eco-friendly potential.

Sustainable palm oil: Tackling the consumer awareness challenge
Consumer perception of palm oil has been stubbornly hard to shift

When it comes to land use, for instance, production of palm oil is higher per hectare than any other land-based vegetable oil – up to ten times higher than some of the most commonly used alternatives. It also uses less water, and when farmers use certified sustainable practices, it is a significant source of income for Southeast Asia producers without contributing to deforestation or habitat loss. Switching to other oils, by contrast, could lead to even greater land use change because of the larger area needed to produce the same amount of oil. From a manufacturing perspective too, palm oil is valued for its low cost, long shelf life and processing benefits, such as heat stability and solidity at room temperature.

However, widespread consumer reluctance to purchase even sustainably sourced palm oil has led to surpluses that are then sold at the same price as palm oil produced using much more destructive methods, thereby disincentivising those who have invested in sustainable production. According to the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), about 20% of the world’s palm oil is certified as sustainable, but only about half of it is sold each year.

A global ethical standards initiative called Palm Done Right aims to re-educate consumers and manufacturers about the source of their palm oil, and has launched a campaign trying to convince food companies to highlight sustainable palm oil on-pack. The idea is to accelerate the shift toward sustainable oil, rather than cutting it from supply chains.

Several major food manufacturers have already made strides toward rejecting unsustainable palm oil, including Unilever, Kellogg, Mondelez and PepsiCo. According to a WWF report, Italian chocolate and Nutella maker Ferrero leads the pack when it comes to supporting sustainable production, but consumer perception has proved difficult to change. Meanwhile, major palm oil traders like Cargill, Bunge Loders Croklaan, Wilmar and Golden Agri Resources have cut ties with suppliers linked to unsustainable practices, also helping to increase global volumes of sustainable oil.

Still, lack of consumer awareness remains a major barrier to increased uptake among manufacturers, and this is one of the RSPO’s priority areas, so consumer demand becomes a driving factor, putting pressure on food companies to use only certified sustainable palm oil.

Related news

Exploring the business benefits of food waste reduction

Exploring the business benefits of food waste reduction

10 Aug 2022

The environmental and human cost of food waste make reduction strategies “one of the most urgent and daunting” challenges to society, but businesses can use the fight on waste to drive additional revenues and profit, according to a report.

Read more 
Price sensitivity driving consumer shift to private-label solutions

Price sensitivity driving consumer shift to private-label solutions

9 Aug 2022

Rising inflation and ongoing supply chain issues are driving shoppers to switch to own-label products, with private label outperforming brands in certain categories, say experts.

Read more 
Activists sue Turkish government for ‘unconstitutional’ banning of vegan cheese

Activists sue Turkish government for ‘unconstitutional’ banning of vegan cheese

8 Aug 2022

Activists in Turkey have slammed the government’s decision to ban the production and sale of vegan cheese products in the country as unconstitutional, with lawsuits and a 7,200-strong petition under way.

Read more 
Chickpea revolution? Companies looking to innovate could face higher prices as global shortage hits

Chickpea revolution? Companies looking to innovate could face higher prices as global shortage hits

5 Aug 2022

From coffee to ice cream, recent product launches demonstrate how companies are betting on chickpea in the plant-based revolution… but could a global shortage scupper innovation?

Read more 
Swedish food packaging company Tetra Pak exits Russia amid mounting sanction-led supply chain pressures

Swedish food packaging company Tetra Pak exits Russia amid mounting sanction-led supply chain pressures

4 Aug 2022

Tetra Pak has become the latest big company to exit its remaining operations in Russia as the country faces increasing shortages under ongoing sanctions.

Read more 
European soft drinks industry celebrates sugar reduction milestones as the ‘war on sugar’ continues

European soft drinks industry celebrates sugar reduction milestones as the ‘war on sugar’ continues

3 Aug 2022

The European soft drinks sector has achieved a 17.7% reduction in average added sugars since 2015, says its industry association, UNESDA. However, experts warn that the “war on sugar” will intensify from both consumers and governments in the next few y...

Read more 
Diageo unveils plans for €200 million carbon-neutral brewery in Ireland

Diageo unveils plans for €200 million carbon-neutral brewery in Ireland

1 Aug 2022

Diageo has unveiled plans for a €200 million carbon-neutral lager and ales brewery in Ireland – the country’s first.

Read more 
Mexican packaged food companies to feel profit squeeze as inflation continues

Mexican packaged food companies to feel profit squeeze as inflation continues

29 Jul 2022

Mexican packaged food companies are set to feel bigger profitability pressures over the next year as commodities price inflation and slowed growth continues, said credit rating agency, Fitch Ratings.

Read more 
Gut health is the biggest growth area for US personalised nutrition brands

Gut health is the biggest growth area for US personalised nutrition brands

28 Jul 2022

Gut health will be a key growth area for personalised nutrition brands in the US throughout 2023, fuelled by the development of more user-friendly microbiome testing kits and the importance of gut health for US consumers, according to the Nutrition Bus...

Read more 
How (and why) should food brands leverage social media?

How (and why) should food brands leverage social media?

27 Jul 2022

Social media is a powerful and far-reaching tool which allows brands to get closer than ever before to their consumers. To reap its value, brands should closely monitor consumer attitudes on social media and proactively engage with them.

Read more