Molly Fleming: Brands should follow Selfridges’ lead on palm oil to ensure long-term loyalty

As Selfridges becomes the first retailer to become palm oil-free, retailers and FMCG brands must ensure they fully understand and communicate their plans effectively to ensure they don’t do more harm than good.

Selfridges logo

Selfridges has become the first major retailer to remove palm oil from all of its own-brand food products.

The premium retailer confirmed yesterday (8 May) that all 300 products in its Selfridges Selection range are now free of palm oil – completed nine months ahead of schedule. The retailer will use alternatives derived from rapeseed, soybean and sunflowers until palm oil can be sourced sustainably.

Simon Forster, the managing director of Selfridges, said of the move: “We believe that until certified palm oil guarantees zero deforestation, our customers should be given the option to buy palm oil-free products.”

It comes as consumers across all age brackets are banding together to fight climate change. You only have to look at the recent youth climate strikes for evidence that people are more passionate than ever about reversing the damage being done to our planet and brands are naive if they think this won’t extend to shopping habits.

The vast majority of consumers (88%) say they are more loyal to companies that support social or environmental issues, according to a 2017 study by Cone Communications, and in the two years since then conscious consumerism has grown drastically.

Selfridges’ move to eliminate palm oil shows it’s moving in the right direction, as it will boost its environmental credentials and solidify loyalty. The brand can rest easy knowing it will be known as one of the leaders in this crusade and others should learn from its decision.

Retailers who want to follow suit and rightly bow to consumer pressure must ensure they don’t try for a quick fix and instead work from an informed position though, which can take time. 

Consumer awareness around palm oil is growing with a recent study for the University of Cambridge, carried out by YouGov, finding 77% of people in the UK are aware of palm oil, with 41% believing it is “environmentally unfriendly”.

Big promises only work if they can be achieved, failing to do so risks brands’ reputation more than if they do nothing at all.

However, this is only half the story.

There is no doubt about the destruction the production of palm oil leaves in its wake. It is said to have been responsible for about 2.3% of the world’s deforestation between 1990 and 2008 and largely blamed for the extinction of half of the Bornean orangutan population over the past 16 years.

This story of rampant destruction and wilful ignorance from suppliers is the current narrative but when sourced sustainably palm oil is actually more environmentally friendly than most alternative oils. In fact, it is takes up half the land needed for soybean production and is more efficient than rapeseed and coconut oil.

The key point, however, is that most palm oil isn’t always sourced ethically. This is something Selfridges has understood, promising it is only removing the controversial substance until certified palm oil can be guaranteed 100% sustainable.

This makes the conversations around palm oil relatively tricky to communicate so Selfridges will need to ensure it takes consumers on the journey with it. Otherwise, if sustainably-sourced palm oil is achieved and reintroduced to products it could face backlash.

Selfridges’ decision to communicate its commitment around palm-oil free products is also a smart move though, and something which Iceland could learn from. The supermarket had pledged to remove palm oil from all own-brand products by the end of last year, but it missed this deadline, instead having to drop its name from 17 items to ‘meet’ the goal.

The supermarket had been leading the charge on palm oil with its tie-up with Greenpeace at Christmas breaking hearts the UK over and improving consumer awareness. At the same time its promise to remove the ingredient from own-brand products kick-started industry and was perfect blend of effective creative marketing merged with authentic brand purpose.

Iceland’s mistake was committing too early. Big promises only work if they can be achieved. Failing to do so risks brands’ reputation more than if they do nothing at all.

READ MORE: Fighting the war on plastic – The brands trying to break our plastic addiction

What’s next?

Ultimately, palm oil is just the beginning and brands need to look at the environmental issues more holistically rather than waiting for the next scandal to come along.

First with plastic and now with palm oil, consumers are demanding more from brands and in order to engender customer loyalty companies need to be ahead, not behind, consumer demands.

A key area is deforestation. Retailers have been relatively vocal about their intentions, but FMCG companies still lag behind when it comes to deforestation Nestlé and PepsiCo are part of the consumer goods forum which promises to be free of deforestation by 2020. Yet it is less clear whether this will be achieved.

Two weeks ago, Nestlé confirmed 77% of its supply chain for key commodities are deforestation-free. However, this is something which campaigners like Greenpeace refute, arguing Nestlé’s calculations have missed out soya used for animal feed and coco.

As the sustainable palm oil for 2020 deadline looms, brands will need to get campaigners onside, as Selfridges has done. Not least because as consumer consciousness grows, brands will not be able to control the narrative for much longer.

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  • michelle desilets 9 May 2019 at 1:38 pm

    Organisations engaged in this issue do NOT call for a blanket boycott of palm oil. It is unfortunate that Selfridges jumped on Iceland’s misguided “Just Say No to Palm Oil” platform instead of committing to sourcing deforestation-free Certified Sustainable Palm Oil such as that which is produced by the grower members of Palm Oil Innovation Group.

    Proactive participation by Selfridges needed to end deforestation for palm oil | Palm Oil Innovation Group bit.ly/2Rgmegb
    #ChooseSustainable #PalmOil and #SaveOrangutans

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