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Study argues sustainable palm oil should be easily accessible

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A new research study from the University of Cambridge is arguing that sustainable choices on palm oil should be made easier to understand and more accessible to consumers. The study is to be published in Environmental Research Letters.

The study outlines how consumer goods companies and retailers need to be more upfront about where palm oil in their products has come from, as to relive consumers of the burden of making sustainable choices.

The research reasons that palm oil production causes deforestation, greenhouse gas emissions from peatland conversion and biodiversity loss and that this information is often unbeknownst to consumers.

Dr. Rosemary Ostfeld is the study’s lead author and said on the research, “The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) has made efforts to improve the sustainability of palm oil production by creating an environmental certification system for palm oil.”

She added, “Currently only 19% of palm oil is RSPO certified. This means the majority that finds its way into products people buy daily is still produced using conventional practices.”

The research was put together after surveying 1,695 British consumers through the market research company, YouGov. Participants answered questions about their awareness of palm oil and its environmental impact, their recognition of ‘ecolabels’ such as Fairtrade, The Soil Association and RSPO, as well as which ecolabelled products they include in their weekly shopping.

The market research found that UK consumer awareness of palm oil was high at 77% with 41% of those aware viewing it as ‘environmentally unfriendly’. However the responses showed that consumers were unaware of the RSPO label that shows on a product that contains sustainably produced palm oil.

Dr. Ostfeld said, “In terms of label recognition versus action, 82% of people recognised the Fairtrade label, but only 29% actively buy Fairtrade products. Only 5% recognised the RSPO label – the same as a fictional label we put into the survey as a control. Of that small number, only 1% said they actively include products with the label in their shopping.”

In order to address this issue, the researchers have put forward several policy recommendations for products containing palm oil. Due to its efficiency to produce and its role in the livelihoods of millions of people, they suggest that banning it is not plausible. The researchers suggest encouraging sustainable palm oil production instead.

“We recommend governments require consumer goods companies and retailers to buy identity-preserved certified palm oil, which can be traced back to the individual plantation. If national targets must be met with identity-preserved certified palm oil, demand for it will increase. It will also enable unsustainable practices to be uncovered more easily.” Suggested Dr. Ostfeld.