Palm oil is the front line in the battle over greenwashing

A worryingly large and growing number of companies are using greenwashing to manipulate consumers – not to mention financial investors.

Across industries, companies are misleading people about the environmental sustainability of their products. According to the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) up to 40 per cent of claims made about the eco-friendly qualities of products sold online could be misleading consumers, as of 2021.

One of the most common and egregious examples of this surrounds the use of palm oil in products. Brands often like to virtue-signal about palm oil, boasting about not using palm oil and claiming that their products are more environmentally friendly as a result.

Over the last few years, many consumers have been misled to believe that “palm oil free” products are better for the planet than those which use sustainably produced palm oil. According to a study by the FreeForChoice Institute, 96 per cent of food products labelled “palm oil free” were higher in saturated fats and less sustainable.

The reality is that the villainisation of palm oil is not based on environmental fact, but instead virtue-signalling. That means greenwashing products by boasting that they contain “no palm oil” is not just vacuous but damaging for the planet, too, because it misleads consumers about which choices are more environmentally friendly. It also indicates that manufacturers are actively avoiding sustainable palm oil, often in favour of alternative ingredients which do more harm to the natural world.

The palm oil industry has been persecuted more than almost any other because of its alleged links to deforestation. This is despite the fact that nine tenths of the palm oil imported to Europe is officially certified as sustainable and does not cause deforestation. The European Union, in an effort to protect its native farming industry, has consistently created barriers for farm holders from elsewhere in the world, especially southeast Asia. That has fed into the corporate greenwashing narratives around palm oil.

Brussels bureaucrats and unelected politicians have consistently ignored the fact that palm oil is by its nature more sustainable than any other vegetable oil. That’s because it is more land-efficient, meaning from the same amount of land, you can get a great deal more palm oil than other oilseeds such as soybean, sunflower, rapeseed and olive. Those other products are between six and ten times less land-efficient than palm oil.

In fact, despite the greenwashed myths which seek to villainise palm oil production, deforestation from palm oil has fallen to a four-year low, according to an analysis from Chain Reaction Research (CRR). Similarly, other research shows how those operating within the palm oil space are going out of their way to minimise their impact on the planet in a way that manufacturers of rival products are not.

For instance, according to the Global Forests Report by the Carbon Disclosure Project, palm oil companies have the highest levels of rigorous no-deforestation commitments, comprehensive risk assessments and integration of forest-related issues into all aspects of their long-term strategic business plans.

Similarly, Global Forest Watch found that in Malaysia, losses of primary forests decreased by almost a whopping 70 per cent between 2014 and 2020, which is testament to the progress that has already been made in pioneering and innovating sustainable methods of palm oil production. Research from the World Resources Institute (WRI) found that 2020 was the fourth year in a row when deforestation because of palm oil was trending down. In other words, unlike other vegetable oils, palm oil’s impact on the environment was already minimal, and it is getting dramatically smaller with each passing year.

All the demonisation of palm oil as part of corporate greenwashing, then, has no basis in fact. Given how sustainable the palm oil industry is upon closer inspection, and given that even the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) agrees that sticking with sustainable palm oil is the best course of action for the environment rather than switching to other products, why is greenwashing and environmental virtue-signalling around palm oil still so commonplace?

Companies would be better off being upfront and honest with consumers and investors about the truth about the use of palm oil and the environmental sustainability of their products.

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