For many ethical consumers, palm oil is a dirty word. Its association with deforestation, the destruction of local communities and forced labour – particularly in Indonesia and Malaysia – makes buying a jar of peanut butter no easy task. Some choose to look for assurances on the label that the palm oil inside has been ethically sourced, while others simply try to avoid buying products made using the commodity.
Palm oil is in more than half of all packaged goods, including makeup, cleaning products and numerous household-favourite foods. And its derivatives are often hidden on product labels under obscure names, such as “ethyl palmitate”. But even if you buy palm oil certified as sustainable, there are criticisms that the current industry standards still allow for rainforest destruction and poor practices.
With public confidence in palm oil fractured, should brands that make a point of sourcing sustainable palm oil even risk trying to engage with their customers on the controversial topic?
This was discussed at a seminar hosted by the Guardian and supported by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), a sustainability body for the palm oil industry. Both the smaller and multinational businesses represented on the panel, which was chaired by the Guardian’s Laura Paddison, agreed that while public engagement is still important, the responsibility for sourcing sustainable palm oil should fall on businesses, not consumers.