Palm oil revolution

Or how Norwegian consumers realized they have power. A lot of power. And you do to.

Or a success story about consumer power from Norway.

If you consider yourself an eco-conscious person, you’ve probably heard about it already. Palm oil, the versatile ingredient found in anything from crisps, cookies, and processed food to shampoo, soaps, and detergents, is causing rainforest deforestation and the loss of habitat and biodiversity for a countless number of species.

So today, I am going to tell you a sunshine story, about how informed consumers started rejecting products containing palm oil, forcing big producers to change their recipes or face dramatic losses.

This is a story about hope. Which we could all use a little more of.

The sleeping giant

Back in 2012, I was a bachelor student in Norway. I didn’t know it, because I didn’t own a TV, but a poplar consumer show was about to air that looked at how palm oil was in a staggering 62 % of food items in the country (compared to 71 % in the North American market in 2010). The show went on to talk about how this was causing hectare upon hectare of deforestation of precious, virgin rainforest, and the loss of habitat for millions of animals.

To say people reacted would be an understatement. I might not have seen the show, but I experienced the aftermath. Newspapers made big, front and center headlines about it. Environmental protection organizations realized the potential and spent serious money on information campaigns and ads like posters and billboards.

Even if you didn’t read the news, there was a high chance you would see one of the posters just getting on with your merry life.

People read, and I joined them. At busy times you could easily see a handful of people deeply engrossed in the ingredient list of their favorite cookie brand. People put back, rejected and even wrote to the producers if they contained palm oil, or what we learned was equally suspicious: the dubious “vegetable oil”.

As is the only known way to make producers listen, we hit them where it hurt – their bottom line.

Investigating the sources

With a whole nation engaged, do you think we gave up when faced with “vegetable oil” or other blanket statements? Of course not.

We have something in Norway called the Environmental Information Act. All businesses operating in Norway have to disclose how they affect the environment if anyone asks. And single consumers, and environmental organizations, asked in droves.

I remember asking a traditional Norwegian “lefse” producer why their product contained palm oil, and how I was sad I could no longer enjoy it. Alone I would have made no difference, but there were other consumers like me doing exactly the same thing.

The producers resisted, they refused, they tried to claim the proportion of oils in their products was a business secret. Big brands like Nestlé and General Mills resisted the longest. But with seriously reduced sales, they all relented in the end.

Changing the recipe

Ingredient lists on the back of foodstuffs were updated with exactly which vegetable oils they contained. But people were still refusing the ones that contained palm oil in big enough numbers that producers felt the sting.

So they adapted.

Palm oil-free products became a marketing advantage. Previously palm oil-riddled products were changed and relaunched with big, bold “Now palm oil free!” signage.

The consumers started returning to their favorite products, now palm oil free. Big producers breathed a tentative sigh of relief. They were back in the game again.

The aftermath

Today, almost ten years later, most people are no longer religiously reading the back of their crisps packets. “Palm oil-free!” is still present on a significant number of products. Mentions of “vegetable oil” is usually followed up by a parenthesis illustrating which vegetable oils we are talking about.

It became such a normal sight, that when I moved to London briefly from 2015-2017, we were staggered to find that everything contained palm oil just as before the quiet revolution in Norway. It was like being sent back in time to having to read on the back of everything again, but everything contained palm oil!

Are we done fighting palm oil in Norway then?

Of course not. While food was a visual and easy target for consumers ire, biofuel for vehicles is actually responsible for 60 % of Norwegian consumption of palm oil. There are still some products who count on consumers either not checking or not caring.

But we fought back, and we proved the concept: voting with your money really works.

What can you do?

Check your favorite products

If you are still living in palm-oil wonderland, you’ll notice that a lot of products don’t spell out “palm oil” outright. Soap and shampoo producers especially like to hide behind chemical names, such as palmitic acid or sodium laureth sulfate. It can also be hiding under a plethora of generic names, so learning a couple of those generic names or checking your favorite products against a list would be a great start.

There are also palm oil supply guides that list lots of different products and their palm oil status.

Write to a producer

If your favorite product does contain palm oil, perhaps consider sending an email or a letter to the producer of that product? No, one letter from one consumer saying they are sad they can no longer enjoy a product is probably not going to make a big difference. But we are acting under the assumption that you are not alone. Many letters from many different consumers over a long period of time, as well as refusing to buy certain products will have an effect over time.

Why is this ecofrugal?

It might seem that this post skews more towards the “eco” part of ecofrugal, but there are several benefits for the more frugal leaning person too.

Refusing products containing palm oil means that you will be refusing a whole lot of processed foods. Perhaps you will miss them so much that you go looking for recipes that mimic your favorite snack.

It is not for no reason that the most visible shelves in a supermarket are typically boxed, packaged and processed foods. These are the products that have the longest shelf life (and thus reduce losses) as well as the highest margins for the supermarket chains.

Shopping at the fringes typically means buying ingredients rather than prepackaged foods. If you are buying lower down on the processing ladder, you will be saving money (provided you know or learn how to use it).

Flour, sugar and butter/shortening are much cheaper pound for pound than prepackaged sugar cookies, but they do require some time and kitchen skills. If you learn to make just one new recipe a month, you will have expanded your repertoire by 12 in a year! Learning kitchen skills brings mastery, and promotes resilience by making you less dependent on external forces. This topic is worthy of a post in its own right, such as this one by Doc Mc Frugal. But unless you are living in a food forest, there is a lot to save by eating less processed foods.

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6 thoughts on “Palm oil revolution

  1. While traveling through Jordan a few years ago, I made friends with a woman from New Zealand. She educated me about palm oil. The related environmental destruction led Kiwis to revolt against palm oil products. I’ve been a religious reader of food labels for years, but I didn’t realize how widespread palm oil use is. Even tons of Whole Foods products use palm oil, which is counter productive to me. If it has palm oil in the ingredients, it goes back on the shelf. I’ve even gotten my boyfriend to do the same thing. 🙂

  2. I recently moved to Norway with my husband for a research contract and have been amazed that nothing contains palm oil here, so thank you for the back story. What a great example of the power of the people to create change.

  3. How fantastic! I didn’t realise Norway had done this! I live in the U.K. where, yes, everything seems to contain palm oil! And I feel like we have only become aware of this in the past 2-3 years.

    I haven’t been writing to manufacturers ( I confess I didn’t think they would listen…) but I have been avoiding palm oil as much as I can.
    It lead to me learning to make soap last year, as I was so annoyed at palm oil being in all soaps and shampoos too.

    1. Yeah, just one consumer writing in to the manufacturers is not going to make a big change by itself. We managed because such a large percentage of consumers were aware and were doing it.

      Hopefully more people will grow aware soon, there were so many tasty treats in the UK that just gutted me to learn had palm oil in them!

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