It’s All About Transparency

Published on: June 25, 2020

(June 23, 2020) Palm oil remains a subject that triggers emotions, that much is clear to see. But when we talk about palm oil and the challenges we face — not only in producing it sustainably but also marketing it transparently — we find anything but clarity. Why is that? Turns out there are risks and benefits to brand transparency. Let’s explore.


Downside to transparency
Unfortunately, hiding the use of palm oil often pays off. During my time working for the social NGO Oxfam, I interacted with Oriflame, producer of cosmetics and personal care products. They were sourcing sustainable certified palm oil and were proud to share that by using the RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) logo on their consumer packaging. Their expectation was consumer appreciation, but instead, sales dropped. It turned out that their consumers never realized that palm oil was used in their favorite brand’s products. Now that they knew, a number of them rejected the product, despite all the efforts the company made to source and reward sustainable palm oil production.

Keeping it positive
Many consumers are ambivalent about palm oil. They demand good quality products — often improved by the use of palm oil-based ingredients — but at the same time reject palm oil. Complicated ingredient names help maintain lack of clarity, ultimately misleading consumers. An example is an ingredient like octyl palmitate, widely used as a texture enhancer and emollient in cosmetics. If you took the time to read your product’s ingredient list, finding such an ingredient name won’t help you understand what it is, or where it is derived from. For some manufacturers who are not willing to face and educate their consumers about their palm oil use, this confusion may be an easy way out. By keeping customers in the dark, these manufacturers can maintain product performance and keep uniformed customers loyal. But, ultimately, this is not a long-term solution.

Facing criticism
Fortunately, there are a growing number of companies who are not afraid of critical responses from their consumers and are willing to openly communicate about using palm oil and why they do so. These manufacturers know that palm oil is the right solution for product quality, performance and sustainability. They consciously choose to use only sustainable and fully traceable palm oil knowing this benefits their consumers as well as farmers and nature.

Consumers need to know
One of those companies is Run-A-Ton Group Inc., carrying brands like Wholly Wholesome and Wholly Gluten Free. In a conversation with CEO Doon Wintz and Director of Marketing Ashley Chard, talking about their motivation to openly communicate about palm oil, Doon says, “This is all about transparency with the consumer. This is not simply about palm. It’s about consumers having a right to know what’s in their products”. They accept that this leads to consumers voicing their disapproval and questioning their policy. “Consumers tell us we’re responsible for killing orangutans”, says Ashley. She believes consumer skepticism is well earned, considering all the images they’re seeing in the media, “People hear and see the bad stuff and don’t hear other narratives. We then explain and show them that there is another story when it comes to palm oil, one of sustainable and fair oil palm production”. To the question of why they continue using palm oil, despite the criticism, Doon is clear, “Simply put, it works. Consumers want their products to perform and taste good. If they don’t, then we haven’t done anybody any good. Our goal is to make good quality products available to as many people as possible. Palm oil helps us achieve that goal.”

This is what you can do
Be aware that palm oil is used in 50% of all packaged goods sold in your grocery stores. Ask yourself how transparent your favorite brands are on the subject. Read your product labels critically and consider what might be hidden behind some of the ingredient names you find there. Visit your brands’ websites to find out whether they take sustainable sourcing seriously. Challenge manufacturers by asking them questions about their policies and commitments and how they are measuring progress. If all this remains opaque, then demand transparency. Manufacturers will only seriously begin to change when you start to demand it. This is the role you have to play to achieve the change we all seek.
Transparency around palm oil use in products is key. Our #sayitonthewrapper campaign is a call to action for brands and retailers to have an open conversation with their consumers on why they use palm oil in their products, and how they should transition to using only sustainable palm oil.

Written by Monique van Wijnbergen, Natural Habitat’s Sustainability & Corporate Communications Director and spokesperson for Palm Done Right. 

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