Mojo Mathers

Countering the arguments against palm oil labelling

by Mojo Mathers

Last weekend I spoke to a group of committed young people attending a workshop on palm oil hosted by the organisers of the Unmask Palm Oil campaign in Orana Wildlife Park.

Palm Oil workshop Orana Park

As highlighted in my previous blog post, palm oil has major environmental and social impacts. This heart wrenching photo of an orang-utan clinging to the last tree in a rainforest being cleared for a palm oil plantation highlights just how dire their plight is.

It is the widespread use  of palm oil in many of the everyday products we consume that drives this destruction of rainforests.

At the moment palm oil hides behind as many as  200 different names, including the generic label “vegetable oil” making it very difficult for consumers to know what they are purchasing.

At that workshop I countered some of the arguments that have been raised against mandatory palm oil labelling

The current status quo where companies can voluntarily declare palm oil in ingredients means that it is only honest companies that face consumer backlash, which is neither fair on these companies nor does it help protect rainforests as consumers often unknowingly just switch to another product containing palm oil.

Only a mandatory system will create a level playing field and allow consumers to choose products without palm oil.

Cost arguments are a red herring. Some people have argued that if companies switch to another ingredient the price of food will go up, therefore we should not expect companies to declare that their product contains palm oil.

This ignores the fact that if cost is the main factor driving consumers’ decision making then they will still purchase the cheapest products even if it contains palm oil.

The issue here is choice. Currently a consumer that wishes to priotise ethical concerns in their decision making and avoid products that doesn’t contain palm oil is not able to do so.

Companies update labels all the time. As long as you have a fair phase in time, a change in labelling standards need not impose excessive extra costs .

The other argument against palm oil labelling is “it will be unfair to people who use palm oil from sustainable sources”. The simple answer is that there is nothing to stop a company from declaring that information on the label, albeit with the proviso that under the new consumer law reform bill that any claims around sustainability must be substantiated.

Published in Environment & Resource Management by Mojo Mathers on Wed, May 22nd, 2013   

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