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Natural Foods Merchandiser

Secret Shopper: What's the deal with palm oil?

Thinkstock palm oil plantation
The Natural Foods Merchandiser secret shopper visited a natural products co-op in the South to test its staff's knowledge on palm oil. Here's how the store did and how you can help your customers with similar questions.

NFM: I’m curious about palm oil as an ingredient in food and body care, and—

Store: I don’t think it’s a good one!

NFM: OK, why is palm oil not a “good” ingredient?

Store: I don’t know exactly. I just feel like I’ve heard bad things about it. Let me look it up quick [finds palm oil entry in "A Consumer’s Dictionary of Cosmetic Ingredients"]. Well, actually it says here that palm oil is safe. So I’m not sure.

NFM: Well, I’ve heard it contributes to deforestation and threatens biodiversity. And when I looked through your body care section just now, I found it in a few products, according to the ingredients lists. So that also makes me curious about the co-op’s stance on palm oil.

Store: I’m sorry, I don’t know about all of the ingredients in all of our products.

How did this retailer do?

Our expert educator: Dan Strechay, U.S. representative, outreach and engagement at the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil

The retailer appears to be uninformed about this issue. Palm oil is usually not the main ingredient in a product, so it occasionally becomes buried on the ingredients list. I can understand why she might not know every ingredient in every item, but it’s important for retailers to have a sustainable palm oil policy for the products they sell.

When considering which products to stock, retailers should look for companies that have adopted sustainable sourcing policies that aim to minimize the human and environmental impacts of the conventional palm oil industry—which can be significant. But also know that palm oil itself isn’t necessarily the issue. The oil palm is just a plant, but how and where it’s planted have historically caused negative impacts such as deforestation, displacement of native peoples and poor working conditions.

However, palm oil can be grown sustainably using best practices. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil has more than 3,500 members worldwide working to make certified sustainable palm oil the norm. Boycotting palm oil could lead to the planting of other, less-productive crops (in terms of yield and agricultural inputs) and actually cause more environmental destruction. Instead, retailers should push their suppliers to only use certified sustainable palm oil and/or look for products that carry the RSPO Trademark.

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