Sustainable Products: Consumer choice or industry’s responsibility?

For most consumers palm oil is an abstract issue – despite it being in 50% of everyday groceries. But what impact does the RSPO trademark really have on consumer sentiment? Fiona Wheatley, Sustainable Development Manager at Marks & Spencer gives a retailer’s perspective. 

M&S want assurance that the major challenges associated with palm oil production are being robustly addressed. At the moment, the RSPO standard provides this assurance, it is the most credible certification in the market, but it still needs to do more, for example tackling the issues of high carbon stock forest destruction and peatland conversion.  This is because when the standard was developed we didn’t understand the enormous impact deforestation was having on climate change.  M&S is participating in many of the forums tasked with solving these challenges and we are doing everything we can to deliver a better future for palm oil production.  We’re really encouraged by the collective effort we see going into finding ways to protect forests and communities.  It is obvious that the majority of participants see the bigger picture of what can be achieved through bringing a broad range of perspectives to the table and the value of open discussion and debate.

Palm oil has a unique productivity advantage over other vegetable oils with palm oil yield up to ten times more than that of its nearest comparable vegetable oil. That’s quite compelling. If we don’t use palm oil, where are we going to find the equivalent land to plant alternative crops like sunflower, rapeseed or soya?  But we cannot keep losing pristine tropical forests to palm oil.  We can meet growing global demand for palm oil through limiting conversion to lower value land (generally called degraded land) and helping smallholders learn how to get more oil from the same land area.

We must not underestimate the immense role played by smallholders as palm oil producers. Something like two thirds of palm oil production comes from smallholders, and there are relatively few other income-generating opportunities for families and communities in these regions. Our solutions must recognise the need to support these growers at the same time as setting clear boundaries to stop unacceptable practices.

However, alongside those smallholders who see palm oil as a route to a better lifestyle are communities who do not want oil palm plantations on their traditional lands.  We must make sure that communities resistant to seeing their land converted to palm oil plantations are given a voice, and are supported equally in their aspirations. It has to come down to their choice.

There are reasons why M&S has invested so heavily in trying to find solutions to the complex problems associated with palm oil, and that’s because we believe it has genuine benefits from a wider sustainability perspective. We believe that it offers a pathway from poverty for many thousands if not millions of people in key producing countries and regions in a way that very few other crops do.

But given all these advantages, and the great progress M&S has made in achieving over 90% RSPO coverage, why don’t we use the RSPO eco-label to tell customers which products contain sustainable palm oil?

There are very good reasons why we don’t use RSPO (or other eco-labels), even though the product or ingredient may be certified.  For instance, M&S has chosen not to use the RSPO logo in general because for the vast majority of our products, the proportion of palm oil in the product is exceptionally low. It would actually feel like greenwashing to make a sustainability claim for an ingredient that’s not a substantial part of the product.

Palm oil is in such a broad range of products that few consumers are willing to indulge the time it takes to check every product to check its credentials.  And if we extend this to talking about the many different issues M&S manages on behalf of our customers – from water to animal welfare to labour standards and many more, the shopping experience starts to get awful complicated.

If we’re really honest, general feedback is that people want us to prioritise information on issues other than palm oil – the key ones being nutrition, provenance and packaging recycling. These are their top priorities in terms of broader sustainability. That’s not to say that a lot of customers aren’t interested in palm oil. It’s just that they’re not going to attend to it with a level of detail that means they will choose a product containing sustainable palm oil over a product that doesn’t.

Consumers, quite frankly, expect us to make sensible sustainability decisions on their behalf. They expect us to be the experts so they can select every product with a clean conscience.  These are issues that we, as companies, have to fix. That’s why partnerships are so important, with suppliers, governments, campaigners and technical experts.  We have to work to achieve this with all the products we sell, and all the ingredients that we use. But I would never talk about sustainability as a destination. Sustainability is a continual improvement process, and making sure that as we learn more about our impacts – through research and data and expert advice – we respond and get better at minimising our impact on the environment.

My big message to customers: look at the brands you buy and what that brand is doing. It won’t take you long, if you look online, to find out what their commitment to palm oil is and how well they’ve made progress against that commitment. That’s what differentiates those that are trying really hard and those who aren’t.

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