Can consumers understand that there is more to palm oil than deforestation?

Sophie-Dorothe Lieke

Sophie-Dorothe Lieke is a Doctoral Researcher at the University of Goettingen. She is a member of the ‘Sustainable Food Systems’ Research Training Group. This blog is based on the publication: Sophie-Dorothe Lieke et al, Can consumers understand that there is more to palm oil than deforestation?, Sustainable Production and Consumption (2023). DOI:10.1016/j.spc.2023.05.037

Nutella. Rainforest deforestation. Unhealthy. These are the words most often associated by German consumers with the term ‘palm oil’. Amidst the predominantly negative discourse, terms like ‘highest yielding’ or ‘most efficient vegetable oil’ rarely enter the conversation. While mismanaged oil palm cultivation can indeed have detrimental socio-ecological impacts, the benefits of palm oil, and more importantly, its comparative performance to other vegetable oils, should not be outright dismissed. However, consumers in western palm oil importing countries do not seem convinced. Overwhelmingly negative sentiments persist even when informed that replacing all palm oil with soybean oil, the second-highest yielding vegetable oil, would require six to eight times the amount of land to meet the increasing demand.

Consumer perceptions are binary

Despite the provision of information treatments, consumers tend to remain skeptical when it comes to understanding how sustainably produced palm oil does not always fare worse than other vegetable oils including soybean, sunflower or rapeseed oil. This alludes to the fact that current consumer perceptions about the sustainability of palm oil are rooted in binary notions (unsustainable vs. sustainable) rather than being able to take on an evaluative role in navigating the varying sustainability trade-offs from different vegetable oils, while also considering the global reality of supply and demand. The prevalence of negative sentiments towards palm oil may still be a relic of past campaigns. Especially in western palm oil importing countries, these were visually striking and emotionally engaging, often involving orangutans as iconic species symbolizing the palm oil industry impact on habitat destruction, biodiversity loss and deforestation.

‘Free from palm oil’ claims

Nonetheless, these past perceptions may not be fully reflective of the progress and development that has happened in the certified palm oil sector. This is exacerbated by the more widespread use ‘free from palm oil’ claims compared to labels indicating the use of certified sustainable palm oil, such as from the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). This in turn fosters a climate in which consumers show more trust towards products with unregulated free from claims than towards third-party sustainability organisations. 

From skepticism towards solutions

While skepticism towards third-party certification organisations can, to an extent, be justified, it risks leading to misleading conclusions about a product’s sustainability and fuels uncertainty in decision-making. This calls for solutions that are transparent and interoperable across private and public sectors. For consumers, a composite and holistic eco-label would not only be more sensitive to differences in production systems but could also alleviate bewilderment among consumers who are trying to navigate and make sense of all the available product labels and claims they are confronted with on a daily basis. Nonetheless, given the plethora of labels, varying in scope and complexity, consumer interventions need to be supplemented with initiatives throughout different levels of the science-policy interface. With the adoption and implementation of the EU’s corporate sustainability due diligence laws, supply chains, including those of palm oil’s, will be put under increased scrutiny. Such top-down policies, coupled with consumer-focused mechanisms, invite more transparency in aligning the perceived with the actual environmental performance of production systems, supply chains and products, so that alternative vegetable oils are not falsely glorified.