Is Palm Oil the next big issue?

Posted by Emily Pitman on the 12th December, 2018
More than a quarter of the UK population now claim to be reducing their palm oil consumption - a significant increase since the beginning of October.

With recent tidal shifts in awareness and conversation about sustainable living, never has conscious concern for the human impact upon the planet been so high. With the shocking scenes of Blue Planet 2 depicting plastic waste filling the oceans, this once concern of the few has entered the public discourse: from conversations with friends, to how we shop and how brands market themselves. Whilst palm oil is arguably still a fringe interest, could we soon be seeing a shift towards it as the next big publicly aware campaign like plastic?

The banned Iceland Christmas ad.
Despite being banned from television, Iceland’s Palm Oil Christmas ad has now been viewed more than 30 million times across social media. Whether a deliberate PR stunt, or genuine bid to increase awareness, as the first supermarket to make a complete commitment to no palm oil it’s certainly a bold move and could be the public wake-up call needed to finally put the issue into the spotlight.

Why is the ad so effective – a human understanding perspective.
Without a doubt, the banning of the advert, and the resulting buzz created around people watching it on alternative channels, has increased the awareness of palm oil. Within the ad itself, Iceland found a way to tap into the issue in a way that really clicks with people – capturing your attention from the start, the simple story of a little girl and an orangutan is enjoyable whilst creating involvement and relevance. The negative news at the end, with the sombre dedication to the 25 orangutans lost every day to palm oil, and clear environmental call to action drives an immediate feeling that something must be done about the issue. The final element is the surprise news that the ad is in fact from Iceland, not an environmental organisation, proving that whilst you might not instantly associate this retailer with ethical issues, they are now inserting themselves into this field.

Iceland Christmas advert 2018 BANNED- Rang-tan the orang-utan (Image: ICELAND)

What have consumers told us since the campaign?
It may not quite yet be the new plastic, but the ad has certainly had an immediate impact on what people claim to be doing or want to do. In our recent research, we found that more than a quarter of the UK population now claim to be reducing their palm oil consumption – a significant increase since the beginning of October prior to the campaign’s launch. Almost three quarters of those that have seen the ad now want to reduce their consumption of products containing palm oil, and even more feel the ad has increased their awareness around the issue.

But will they really change their behaviour?
So we know people are starting to take notice of the issue, and are claiming to want to change their behaviour. But in reality will this really happen and will this be enough? Whilst people are slowly starting to change their attitudes and choices around issues such as plastic waste, in the age that we live in to avoid it altogether is near impossible. We may have very good intentions about only buying products in sustainable packaging or avoiding single use coffee cups, but the reality is that convenience, habitual brand preference and the irrational way we make decisions, will ultimately win.

Whilst the issues surrounding palm oil production are becoming more well known, it is certainly hard to avoid, as palm oil is found in almost half the products sold in UK supermarkets, helping to create the smooth and creamy taste and texture needed in products such as ice cream, chocolate and margarine, as well as providing the cleaning and moisturizing agent needed in many household and personal care products. So avoiding it altogether is not an easy task.

Retailers and manufacturers should be the driving force of change.
More than 8 in 10 told us they want manufacturers and retailers to do more to tackle the issues surrounding palm oil production and deforestation. So to drive real behaviour change, the onus is on companies to move towards more palm oil free or certified sustainable products. Taking the decision power away from consumers automatically nudges them towards a more environmentally friendly choice. Much like the 5p carrier bag charge, whilst the financial penalty is only very small, it still nudges us towards the better decision of re-using plastic bags.

What are retailers already doing?
As promised in their ad, Iceland have made the commitment for 100% of their own label food to be completely palm-oil free by the end of 2018. And it will remain that way until all palm production causes zero rainforest destruction. As the first UK supermarket to make this level of commitment to absolutely no palm oil, this marks major change in the industry. Whilst it’s unlikely that other supermarkets will be adopting similar policies imminently, 100% of Aldi, ASDA, Co-op, Lidl, Tesco and Waitrose own label products containing palm oil are already certified sustainable or zero deforestation (98% and 88% amongst Sainsbury’s and Morrison’s own label respectively).

Should brands be removing palm oil altogether?
Banning palm oil altogether is not necessarily the perfect answer and Iceland’s ad could be over-simplifying what is a hugely complex issue, something that can’t be easily solved. Critics of an outright ban claim there are very few viable alternatives to palm oil, arguing that when sourced sustainably and without involving deforestation, palm oil is better than alternatives oils, which are less efficient and equally bad for the environment. So encouraging consumers to completely avoid it, or removing it from products altogether, could transfer the issue to production of other less efficient oils, which could be even more harmful in the long term.

Reformulating products to avoid using palm oil may not be the perfect answer, but with more than 2 in 5 consumers calling for a complete ban, this level of consumer demand clearly can’t be ignored. Consumer awareness and concern for the issue will only increase, so looking at reformulation from a future-proofing standpoint would be sensible. Many brands have already ensured their products don’t use palm oil, or that if it does, the source is completely traceable, sustainable, and involved zero deforestation – so it’s a difficult task, but one that is not impossible. Instead, brands need to work harder to improve sustainability credentials.

Whilst the Iceland ad has proven highly effective in terms of driving consumer awareness around the issue, rather than encouraging palm oil boycotts, brands instead need to be educating consumers that sustainably sourced palm oil can be viable. Given that more than 2 in 5 consumers agree strongly that non-certified sustainable palm oil should be banned, brands will need to work much harder to increase their credibility around the issue. Whilst more time is needed to understand whether this marks a real lasting change in consumer behaviour, brands without sustainability credentials in all their products will need to act very quickly before consumers switch out of the brand to sustainable or palm-oil free alternatives.

Being able to show that the use of palm oil is 100% sustainable with no impact on the environment, local people or local habitats and encouraging consumers to look out for the certified sustainable logo will be essential going forward to keep up. As consumer awareness and knowledge around the issue increases, brands will also need to be more transparent in their ingredients lists (particularly when palm oil is listed under other derivatives) to help consumers make a more informed decision.

Calling out these credentials on pack.
Driving awareness and familiarity for the RSPO Certified Sustainable symbol will be key – so that people can quickly and unconsciously recognise this logo on pack and decide whether to buy or not, much like we are now much trained to instantly recognise symbols such as vegetarian, gluten-free and recyclable. As well as official certification, calling out these credentials on-pack with clear and simple sign-posting, like Meridian’s use of the orangutan holding a no palm oil sign on their nut butters, will help palm oil conscious consumers better navigate products under this new mindset.

Want to find out more about our work?
To chat more about issues affecting retailers and companies such as palm-oil, or find out how we can support you with brand, comms, product, pack and claims development, please do get in touch!

Meet the Author: Emily Pitman
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