Will palm oil free products sell better?

A television advert from Iceland highlighting the effects of palm oil has been banned, because it was deemed “too political”. The advert featured an animation from Greenpeace, about an orangutan who is losing their home to palm oil producers. Iceland is the first major UK supermarket to go palm oil free. Greenpeace highlighted the environmental impact of palm oil.

85% of palm oil is produced in Malaysia and Indonesia. It is found in many household items (around 45%), such as baked goods, sweets and chocolates, shampoo, makeup, toothpaste and cleaning agents.

While palm oil is efficient to produce compared to soybean and coconut oil, requires less fertiliser and pesticide, and offers jobs to those living in developing countries, there are major disadvantages to producing palm oil.

In order to plant palm trees, large areas of forest need to be cleared away. Between 1990 and 2008, 8% of the world’s forests have been cut down or burned. Burning destroys the habits of plants and animals, so the area has less biodiversity, and this affects species such as tigers, elephants, rhinos and orangutans, who are becoming critically endangered. In the last 20 years, 90% of orangutan habitats have been destroyed, with 1,000–5,000 orangutans killed each year, and 50,000 altogether. Additionally, certain seeds can only germinate when they’ve passed through orangutans, so the spread of rainforest seeds is diminishing.

Burning also releases carbon dioxide and soot in the air, leading to climate change. In June 2013, air pollution reached an all-time high in Singapore, caused by forest fires in Indonesia. The pollution reached hazardous levels and residents were advised to stay indoors. Indonesia is the third-highest producer of greenhouse gasses globally.

While the palm oil industry gives the opportunity for employment, it has been highlighted as violating major human rights, such as child labour. With difficult working conditions, children receive very little or no pay for their work.

These problems strongly suggest we start to take action against the industry.

But do the UK population care?

Peanut butter commonly contains palm oil. We ran a split test steer, asking half of our consumer sample if they’d buy peanut butter that was labelled as palm oil free, and the other half if they’d buy ‘regular’ peanut butter (one without any labels).

These are the results:

Do palm oil claims make a difference to peanut butter sales

We can see that it makes little difference whether the peanut butter is labelled palm oil free or not. While this doesn’t necessarily mean that people don’t care, it may show that people aren’t educated enough about the industry, or even know palm oil is found in peanut butter (and multiple other everyday products). This demonstrates that producers currently have little financial incentive to remove palm oil from their products.

If campaigners want to make an impact, they will need to raise public awareness and pressure producers to change their ingredients. Iceland still aims to educate through their website, where their banned advert is available to watch. On YouTube, the advert has over 5 million views.