RSPO chief on palm oil boycotts, brand responsibility, and the need to ‘rethink’ retail

By Flora Southey

- Last updated on GMT

A palm oil farmer collects a bunch of palm fruit ©GettyImages/Wirachai
A palm oil farmer collects a bunch of palm fruit ©GettyImages/Wirachai

Related tags Palm oil Rspo deforestation boycott Food marketing

Retailers, brands, and their marketeers are ‘not doing enough’ to promote sustainably driven purchasing decisions in-store, RSPO CEO Datuk Darrel Webber tells FoodNavigator: “Sustainable products have to be front-and-centre to help consumers loosen their purse strings.”

Palm oil’s association with deforestation, forest fires, biodiversity, and orang-utan extinction has landed the commodity out of favour with European consumers.

Yet the ingredient is entrenched in the consumer goods market. In fact, the odourless oil features in over 50% of all supermarket products – both in food and non-food categories.

According the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), boycotting the commodity is not the answer. There is a strong counter argument that doing so could simply transfer these environmental challenges onto other commodities and producing countries.

Further, as palm oil is a high yield crop​ – significantly higher than rapeseed, sunflower, and soybean oil – when sustainably produced, the commodity uses fewer limited natural resources than its competitors.

So why aren’t European consumers backing sustainably produced palm oil? According to CEO Daruk Darrel Webber, who heads up the sustainable palm oil organisation, at least part of the answer lies in inaction on the part of retailers, brands, and their marketeers.

Consumers’ reactions ‘instinctive’ but ‘wrong’

In Europe, and particularly in the UK, the ‘palm oil free’ trend appeared to grow momentum after frozen foods retailer Iceland aired an emotive television campaign​ pledging to remove all palm oil from its products.

Datuk Darrel Webber, Chief Executive Officer of RSPO at RT17
The RSPO chief opened RT17 in Bangkok, Thailand ©RSPO

Upmarket retailer Selfridges has also eliminated palm oil from its own-label range, and earlier this year online retailer Ocado added a ‘palm oil-free aisle’ to its website.

Palm oil vs competitor commodities

Palm oil is high yield compared to other oil crops. According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), oil palm produces a yield of approximately 3.8 tonnes per hectare (t/h), whereas rapeseed produces approximately 0.8 t/h, sunflower approximately 0.7 t/h, and soybean oil 0.5 t/h.

As a result, “European consumers are very aware of the palm oil situation”, ​said Webber when we caught up at RSPO’s RT17 in Bangkok, Thailand. “And I’m not blaming them”.

When confronted with the devastating effects of irresponsibly produced palm oil – as consumers were in Iceland’s television advert featuring a displaced, orphaned orang-utan – they feel compelled to act, and rightly so, the CEO suggested.

For Webber, the issue here is two-fold. Firstly, when brands and retailers campaign against the use of palm oil, they ‘don’t provide a solution’. Therefore “the default solution for the consumer is saying no to palm oil,” ​he explained. “It’s the easiest thing to do – it’s very instinctive.”

Secondly, at the consumer level, identifying sustainable palm oil in-store is ‘too difficult’. “There are so few people putting it out on the shelves, and if it’s on the shelves, it’s [positioned] somewhere where you can barely find it.”

food label VLG
The RSPO chief says sustainable palm oil products are too difficult to find in supermarket aisles ©GettyImages/VLG

Webber regrets not having coupled the palm oil problem with ‘an easy solution’ for consumers when first raising the issue, he revealed. Because “I think many of the consumers have the right intentions, unfortunately they inadvertently chose the wrong solution”.

So then who is to gain from a situation where palm oil – even when sustainably produced – is publicly eliminated from supermarket aisles, brand packaging, and shopping baskets?

“There are opportunists in this whole discussion,” ​said Webber, suggesting decisions to ban all palm oil, no matter the sourcing method, are largely driven by the bottom line. “[Brands and retailers] have the greater power of analysis, they saw what could be done, but instead chose to ride on this wave of negativity and make even more money.”

Why don’t marketeers help consumers buy ‘the good stuff’?

Irresponsible palm oil production is the leading cause of orang-utan extinction ©GettyImages/undefined undefined

As it stands, supply of RSPO certified oil outweighs demand in Europe. This not only makes it challenging to convince conventional palm oil producers to convert to sustainable practices, it also demonstrates that consumers are not voting for sustainably produced palm oil with their wallets.

While consumers make the ultimate purchasing decision, marketeers are hired by food brands and retailers to influence to these choices. Therefore, according to RSPO, consumers cannot be blamed for this lack of demand.

“We put too much of a burden on consumers. If we expect [them] to solve the biggest problems in this world, we are going to lose [the fight against] this climate emergency,” ​said Webber.

“Consumer goods manufacturers and retailers can certainly help consumers make [sustainable purchasing] decisions, and they’re not doing enough. There needs to be a rethink.”

With a background in marketing himself, the RSPO chief is aware of how much planning is put into product placement in supermarkets. If ‘buy level is eye level’, why aren’t the sustainably produced products placed in this zone?

“When consumers go to a retailer, they face so many choices. And it’s not necessarily the best choices put in front of them. They have to wade through all the [rubbish] to find the really sustainable ones – which are on the bottom shelf.”

“Sustainable products have to be front-and-centre to help consumers loosen their purse strings” – RSPO CEO Datuk Darrel Webber

Webber implores brands and retailers to put ‘the good stuff’ in front of consumers, instead of taking a ‘no palm oil’ approach. If palm oil-free and organic aisles exist, why not have aisles dedicated to sustainable products? he suggested.

This approach also requires brands, retailers, and consumers to look beyond ecolabels. RSPO acknowledges awareness of its ecolabel is low, which was confirmed by a UK consumer survey published earlier this year​. Of those surveyed, just 5% recognised the RSPO ecolabel. This was the same percentage as those that ‘recognised’ a fictitious label put in the mix, prompting the researchers to conclude RSPO’s label was ‘indistinguishable from zero’.

Webber doesn’t believe that placing an ecolabel front-of-pack is the ultimate solution. “If you really want to make changes in this world, you have to go beyond that niche consumer that looks at logos, and get the masses to buy it.

“And the way to do it is to change the way our brands think, the way our retailers think, and have them put – by default – good stuff in the best locations in retail outlets.”

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