It’s the invisible ingredient behind what is now being called one of the worst humanitarian crises of the 21st century. Palm oil features in chocolate, cereal, bread, cakes, biscuits and toiletries — but you’ll rarely find it on any of the packaging. And in the meantime, entire rainforests in Indonesia and New Guinea are being leveled to make way for palm oil plantations, devastating local ecosystems and endangering already-rare wildlife.
But it is not realistic or practical for consumers to simply boycott palm oil products, or for brands to stop selling them altogether. A great many alternative products made without palm oil feature coconut essence instead, which is even less sustainable and therefore pose a whole host of other environmental concerns.
Experts say the diversification of crops and the creation of more sustainable supply chains are the only answer to this crisis, with certified sustainable palm oil (CSPO) being the most ethical replacement for existing palm oil. But how to communicate the importance of this ingredient to a wider audience?
A major roadblock to solving this problem is making the average consumer aware of the impact the palm oil industry is having on these tropical regions, and then helping them to make more informed choices about which products they purchase. This includes listing palm oil (including CSPO) as an ingredient on product packaging, which many brands aren’t keen to do.
“Palm oil is not the defining ingredient [in chocolate],” says Jonathan Horrell, Director of Global Sustainability at Mondelez International. Marks & Spencer similarly justify their decision to omit mentions of palm oil on packaging by saying they want to keep it simple, according to Sustainable Development Manager Fiona Wheatley: “We could also list the dairy, cocoa, nutrition, soy, UK sourcing, factory standards, water-use, forestry, pesticides, gluten-free, fair trade… You have to decide what is most important to customers.” Of course, the converse argument is that if there were a greater understanding of palm oil, then it would be important to customers.
Even without a broad public demand, a number of corporations are committing themselves to only selling 100% CSPO products, including Unilever. “Customers expect the retailer or brand to do the right thing,” says Peter Andrews of the British Retail Consortium. “Trust is vital, and if that trust is put into question then consumers potentially will look elsewhere.”
Outside of the corporate world, environmental activists are mobilising to spread the word of what is happening in Indonesia; Greenpeace, 38 Degrees, Avaaz, Rainforest Action Network, Ethical Consumer and other groups have all launched campaigns to raise awareness and grow opposition to the deforestation and destruction.
The efforts of both these brands and campaigns will be required to overcome public ignorance, a crucial first step in achieving change on any level. In this case, as in so many others, knowledge really is power.