Palm oil’s reputation has been muddied in recent years, due to its links with deforestation, biodiversity loss and climate change.
However, rather that boycott the commodity, a good number of food manufacturers and retailers are pushing for sustainably produced, deforestation-free palm oil. Nestlé is one such company.
Buying ‘thousands of tons of it’ every year to use in its food and beverage products, Nestlé is automatically implicated in the palm oil problem. It admits it had wanted to achieve 100% deforestation-free palm oil by 2020, but by December of last year, had achieved just 70%.
Its new ambition is to achieve a 100% deforestation free supply chain by 2022.
“We have made great progress with our direct suppliers, but reaching out and working with small-scale farmers remains a challenge,” noted the company, adding that these hard-to-reach smallholders ‘often cut down trees’ to make more land for crops.
Does today’s consumer understand the complexities of palm oil production and the challenges food makers face in ensuring 100% deforestation-free supply?
Spotlight on Millenials
To better respond to this question, with particular focus on the Millennial consumer, Nestlé commissioned Incites Consulting to conduct a survey of 25-40 year olds in the UK & Ireland. A representative sample of 1,001 people took part in the survey in June 2021.
Nestlé has particularly focused on Millennials in the survey because 24-40 year olds are a ‘key group of consumers’ for which sustainability plays an ‘important part in their shopping decisions’, Dr Emma Keller, Head of Sustainability, Nestlé UK & Ireland explained.
“As well as sustainability being particularly important to them, they look for brands with purpose and they are the future generation of household shoppers.
“We wanted to understand more about how important sustainability is to these consumers and how this translates to their perception of palm oil and their purchase decisions.”
Consumers focus on packaging and ingredients
According to the survey, around one in five millennial shoppers (17%) tend to avoid purchasing products containing palm oil. Twenty percent said they actively check to see if the product contains the contentious ingredient.
Almost half (45%) said they tend to avoid products containing unsustainable palm oil.
More than eight of 10 people (85%) said they believe consuming sustainable products is important, however one in 10 (12%) said they don’t know exactly what to look for to establish if a product is sustainable.
Amongst those consumers who do actively check for palm oil and sustainable sourcing, eight out of 10 (85%) look on the pack, and one-quarter (24%) look on company websites. One in 10 participants said they find research into environmental credibility too time-consuming.
“I was surprised to see that millennial attitudes towards sustainability in general focus very much around packaging and ingredients, with supply chain issues further down the list of considerations,” Dr Keller told this publication.
“This filters through to their understanding of the impact of sourcing palm oil – while environmental concerns are well known, awareness of the impact of local populations and human rights is low.
“In addition, despite broad awareness of the sustainability issues, most aren’t actively changing their shopping behaviour – and we see that price, availability, lack of awareness of alternatives and just not knowing what to look for are the key barriers.”
Interactive consumer education
The millennial cohort was also asked about the production of palm oil, with 56% of respondents saying they think Nestlé should continue to work with small farmers, and 11% believing Nestlé should stop working with smallholders.
From Nestlé’s perspective, ceasing supply from smallholders, which produce 40% of the world’s palm oil, could have a ‘devastating impact’ on their lives and livelihoods. Rather, it is ‘important’ Nestlé continues to work with smallholders, and in doing so, help to stamp out unsustainable practices.
To raise awareness among consumers about the complex sustainability issues within the palm oil chain, Nestlé has launched an interactive video platform titled ‘Beneath the Surface’.
“We want to help inform all consumers about the difficult challenges in palm oil production and sourcing and the actions we are taking to combat deforestation and forced labour in the palm oil sector,” explained Dr Keller.
Viewers are offered a ‘better insight’ into the supply chain and see how the choices they make under the different scenarios can lead to a range of outcomes and consequences.
“The Beneath the Surface platform enables users to take a peek at some of the dilemmas Nestlé and many other organisations face with palm oil every day. We hope that by having more open conservations about the complexity of sourcing ingredients such as palm oil, people can understand the issues and make better informed decisions when choosing products,” noted Dr Keller.
“We can all play a role towards a sustainable palm oil future where it contributes to protecting and restoring nature to the benefit of people, wildlife and the planet. We are working on it and expect our consumers to continue to hold us to account.”