Shoppers should be able to delete unsustainable palm oil

red forest trees animal
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Whether to avoid palm oil in our shopping baskets is a hot topic at the moment, thanks to Iceland’s emotive Rang-Tan ad campaign. But a quick glance at the website of almost any NGO working on tropical forest conservation in South East Asia will tell you that they don’t advocate a palm oil boycott. The likes of WWF, the Sumatran Orangutan Society (SOS) and even Greenpeace seem to agree that the problem is palm oil linked to deforestation, not palm oil per se. Indeed, SOS states their view on whether a palm oil boycott would help orangutans is “an unequivocal no”[1].

The reason is that the yield on palm oil is much higher than that of any other vegetable oil crop. So if demand for palm oil dries up, growers could be tempted to cultivate a less productive crop, driving deforestation more rapidly. Many conservation NGOs are members of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), which runs the world’s leading sustainable palm oil certification scheme. This is a labelling scheme, like Fairtrade or the Marine Stewardship Council blue label, to ensure the credibility of claims regarding environmental performance throughout the palm oil supply chain. The scheme has its detractors, but only ten days ago upgraded its standard to encompass a “zero deforestation” principle taking forests’ role as carbon stocks more clearly into account[2].

I suspect many people would vastly prefer to know orangutans have a secure future than eat a particular brand of biscuit. An economist would frame the problem this way: people have preferences for natural protection, they just often lack a mechanism to express their preferences as powerfully as the market provides the biscuit. So we need to compensate for this, whether via regulation, public provision, or by tweaking markets.

Palm oil certification is such a tweak. Giving consumers and manufacturers information and assurance creates demand for deforestation-free palm oil and slows the rate of destruction – at least it should. But the current situation clearly lacks transparency and consumers are left in the dark.

Leading UK supermarkets have committed to source only RSPO-certified palm oil for their own brand products, but that still leaves a lot of branded products on the shelves. Consumers need to be quite determined and do their own research to know whether to choose or avoid them. Brands using certified palm oil could emblazon their packets with logos, but seem reluctant to, possibly believing packaging is already too crowded, or waiting chicken-and-egg-like for consumers to take the lead. In 2014, the EU intervened in the matter. Its Food Information to Consumers regulation means that palm oil must be listed as such (rather than as a generic ‘vegetable oil’) in product ingredients. But this does not cover non-food items like shampoo, and tells consumers nothing about the deforestation impact of the palm oil used.  People have busy lives and shouldn’t be expected to navigate through this information desert unaided.

So here’s a suggestion for a single, simple action that could make a world of difference. Online supermarkets could give consumers the option to filter out all products containing non-certified palm oil through a tick box in their account setting like this one:

Please don’t show me any products containing non-sustainable palm oil

This would be far more efficient than the status quo. It would allow millions of online shoppers to automatically avoid palm oil contributing to deforestation. It would hugely amplify their voice and send the clearest possible signal to less responsible companies that they had better shape up and address their deforestation impact. It would help make sustainable palm oil absolutely mainstream. And customers would no longer feel they are insignificant atomised voices in the wilderness.

The reaction to the Iceland ad as well as the backlash against plastic show that when people reckon their purchases are causing severe ecological destruction, they are horrified and ashamed. We often don’t know how best to direct this raw emotion to improve matters. Many are thirsting for environmental solutions and will reward retailers who provide them. The alternative to meaningful transparency is consumers boycotting products in a crude, indiscriminate way which does not reward responsible companies – as already happens with palm oil.

Environmental problems can be complex and full of nuance, more than the average person has time to investigate. Achieving a sustainable economy will mean that individuals, business and society need to make smart choices based on high quality information. We will need to harness information technology and data science to do that. This would be a baby step in that direction.

Letting people pool their very strong preferences not to displace and kill orangutans, at the same time as preserving local livelihoods in South East Asia and retaining carbon in forests and soils, is a win-win-win. Sure, supermarkets’ more laggardly suppliers wouldn’t like it. But there is objectively no reason why manufacturers who have failed to respond to this major, long-running environmental problem should be spared the full force of consumer power. So why not just let shoppers delete unsustainable palm oil?


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[1] See

[2] See for a handy explainer

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