Consumers can influence firms to engage in sustainable farming practices: Experts

palm oil products
Few of the hundreds of products on the shelf state 'palm oil' on the label. Image:

With greater awareness and more information available, consumers can play a bigger role in influencing palm oil companies to engage in sustainable clearing practices, said experts, although some of them noted that consumers are “too far” down the supply chain and it may be “a long time” before their efforts bear fruit.

The Consumers Association of Singapore, for one, is studying how it can play a greater advocacy role on this issue, said its President Lim Biow Chuan. “If we can signal strongly to the companies that buy palm oil (to manufacture their) products that we are extremely unhappy and they are risking the wrath of consumers, then they can signal to the palm oil companies,” he said. Products which contain palm oil include chocolates, cookies, soap and shampoo. 

With the haze having engulfed Singapore last week and still blanketing parts of Malaysia as a result of illegal forest fires in Central Sumatra, environmentalists and business associations have called for the enforcement of legislation against slash-and-burn tactics and support for whistle-blowing to exert pressure on palm oil companies to clean up their act.

The Singapore Manufacturing Federation, for instance, issued a statement earlier this week urging their members not to have business transactions with errant organisations and their subsidiaries.

Singapore Environment Council Executive Director Jose Raymond felt consumers have “full capabilities to exert pressure on companies and enact changes in market trends and consumption patterns”.

Given more information, they can avoid products from companies involved in causing the haze, he said.

He pointed out that many products certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil as being made from sustainable palm oil are available in major convenience stores.

According to Ms Guan Chong, a marketing lecturer at SIM University’s School of Business, a recent survey found that 48 per cent of 1,000 respondents indicated it was “important” for a trusted brand to be environmentally-friendly in its business practices.

“This shows that Singaporean consumers are also playing an active role in advancing sustainability through their lifestyle choices and buying decisions,” she said.

Mr Lim stopped short of calling for a boycott of errant companies, noting that it might affect the livelihoods of some who “may not be quite involved”.

However, Professor Ang Peng Hwa from Nanyang Technological University’s Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information believes that a consumer boycott can effect change. He started the Haze Elimination Action Team in 2007 in his own capacity to raise funds for an educational effort against slash-and-burn tactics in Indonesia’s Jambi province.

It has been revived “to mobilise anyone in the region interested to join; to mount an education campaign for farmers; to boycott companies identified as offenders; to raise funds for the above effort”.

Said Prof Ang: “I am hoping that we can target the brands and products of the offending companies. It is alien to us in Singapore because we have not done it, we see ourselves as moderates and we prefer to leave things to the Government to solve.”

However, Senior Marketing Lecturer Siok Kuan Tambyah from the National University of Singapore Business School cautioned that consumers are at the bottom of a “long chain”, which may cause their power to be “diffused”.

“Vigilance and the monitoring of business practices take time and effort, and sometimes consumers are not prepared to invest their personal resources,” she said. “In this instance, it will help if third-party agencies are willing to step in to be the watchdogs.”

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