According to an open letter published in Environmental Research Letters, a study administered in collaboration with YouGov has revealed that awareness of palm oil in general, is ‘fairly high’ in the UK.
77% of the 1,695 British adults surveyed were aware of the popular ingredient, which is frequently associated with deforestation, biodiversity loss and climate change. Just 41% of UK consumers, however, perceived palm oil to be ‘environmentally unfriendly’.
YouGov's study investigated consumer reactions to six ecolabels focused on sustainable practices, including the palm oil-focused RSPO, and one fictitious ecolabel, with varying results.
Leading the pack
Fairtrade UK, which helps producers and consumers establish fair trade terms, scored the highest, with 82% of UK consumers recognising the blue, green and black badge.
“Their finding is similar to analysis we have done, which shows that we’re recognised by 90% of consumers,” spokesperson Susannah Henty told FoodNavigator.
“In terms of why we are so well known, this year we will be celebrated 25 years of Fairtrade in the UK and in that time we have grown both as a movement and as a certification scheme,” she added.
The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), which promotes the responsible management of forests, came in second with 54% of consumers recognising the stylised tree motif. According to the non-profit, the findings are similarly in line with its own consumer research.
“Our research shows that in the past 10 years prompted recognition of the FSC logo in the UK has more than doubled, increasing by an average of 10% every three years. We’re pleased that recognition…continues to increase and encouraged by the interest in responsible sourcing,” said spokesperson Tallulah Chapman.
RSPO’s ecolabel ‘indistinguishable from zero’
However, just 5% of the consumers surveyed recognised the RSPO ecolabel – the same percentage as those that ‘recognised’ the fictitious label. RSPO’s ecolabel is therefore “indistinguishable from zero”, said researchers.
According to the not-for-profit, which was founded to reduce the negative impact of palm oil cultivation on the environment and affected communities, this result is not surprising. “We recognise that consumer awareness is low,” RSPO’s head of operations, Inke Van Der Sluijs, told FoodNavigator.
“We have always focused on engaging companies in the past, and we’ve not been very customer focused. The trademark is relatively new and underused.”
The authors suggest that low recognition of voluntary ecolabels may be, in part, due to a reluctance from food manufacturers to apply the badge, which draws attention to the presence of palm oil in their products – especially when palm oil content is minimal.
Van Der Sluijs agrees with this comment: “Not all companies want to draw attention to an ingredient that is one of many,” she said.
“We do encourage our members to start talking about their sustainable sourcing – and many of them already do – but often, they don’t promote it directly to their consumers.”
Overall, however, RSPO has observed an increase in trademark use: “Times are changing. Consumer awareness is increasing, and that is visible in the article.”
So, do ecolabels change consumer habits?
Interestingly, the survey found that the adherence of ‘eco’ trademarks on packaging had a relatively small impact on consumer shopping habits.
Of the 82% of consumers that recognised the Fairtrade ecolabel, for example, just 29% opted to purchase products bearing that label.
Of the consumers that recognised the other certification badges, 10% or less said their presence would influence their shopping habits. Just 1% of consumers that recognised RSPO’s ecolabel said they would purchase RSPO-labelled products.
‘Identity preserved’ not sustainable, says RSPO
Looking to the future, the authors suggest a national policy requiring companies to source only 100% identity preserved physical palm oil could ensure sustainable palm oil consumption.
RSPO has four purchasing models, each with varying degrees of sustainable criteria: Identity Preserved, Segregated, Mass Balance and RSPO credits (previously GreenPalm). Identity Preserved sustainable palm oil comes from a single identifiable certified source, and must be kept separately from ordinary palm oil throughout the supply chain.
RSPO has spoken out against the authors' suggestion, however. “In terms of sustainability, that is not necessarily the best solution,” said Van Der Sluijs. “If you want to have the material from one mill separate from the other mills – as is necessary with ‘identity preserved’ – it requires separate vessels [for export], which means more shipments of smaller quantities, which is not necessarily a sustainable solution.”
“Whereas if you work with ‘segregated’ or ‘mass balance’, you are allowed to mix different streams, which is a better solution for companies.”
Source: IOP Science
Published in print and online: 4 January 2019
Authors: Rosemary Ostfeld, David Howarth, David Reiner, Pawel Krasny