Covid-19 has sparked a wave of ethical consumerism, now it’s up to industries to follow

Certification - like Malaysia’s MSPO - is a vital resource for ethical consumers and environmental sustainability, says Mariam Harutyunyan.
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By Mariam Harutyunyan

Mariam Harutyunyan is a sustainable innovation consultant and the founder of Belgian sustainable streetwear brand KinArmat

04 May 2021

Numerous studies since the start of the pandemic have shown that shoppers are focused on protecting the planet. An Accenture survey, published last year, entitled - ‘How Will COVID-19 Change The Consumer?’ - showed shoppers “have drastically evolved”; some 60 percent reported making more environmentally friendly purchases since the pandemic started. Nine out of ten of those said they were likely to continue to do so. The shift towards ethical consumption is here to stay. 

Consumers are increasingly scrutinising the global economy, strongly influenced by sustainable sourcing, manufacturing and distribution (while also penalising companies that obscure such information). Their concerns extend to labour laws - particularly women’s rights - as well as safe working conditions, fair wages and shielding their own communities from climate change. 

“The EU should embrace the opportunity to explore the standards that countries such as Malaysia have realised”

Not surprisingly, consumers are increasingly demanding assurances from governments and companies that the supply chain will reflect the social responsibility that they champion. 

Nevertheless, sometimes consumers get it wrong. For example, when the massive cosmetics industry was criticised for its reliance on palm oil, which - it was assumed - was inextricably linked to deforestation, some companies and consumers switched to coconut oil. Not only did they fail to understand the nuances of palm oil - some of which is relatively sustainable - they also didn’t know that coconut oil, as studies have shown, requires five times more land to produce the same amount of oil. 

However, a recent report by CDP, ‘The Collective Effort to End Deforestation’, found that palm oil, of all forest risk commodities, has made by far the greatest progress against deforestation. Nearly all palm oil companies - 98 percent to be precise - have taken at least one industry-accepted measure to address forest loss. While sustainability standards vary across the industry, there are bright spots that European companies, and consumers particularly, would do well to understand. 

One such template is the Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) certification, which has important successes to its credit, though it is not without potential for continued improvement. Given palm oil’s widespread use, MSPO’s successes are important to understand. 

Specifically, palm oil is one of the most common ingredients in consumer products the world over - from the aforementioned cosmetics to biofuels. As such, the progress Malaysia has made in sustainability is vital for others to learn from, and it is important that passionate, ethical consumers should become more aware of this. Their awareness will shape their preferences, and their preferences will shape their purchases.

Not only was the MSPO certification designed to transform Malaysia’s entire palm oil industry, but it is specifically tailored to smallholder farmers, who are such an important part of palm oil production in Malaysia and other countries. Thanks to MSPO, almost 90 percent of Malaysian palm oil is certified sustainable. Year-on-year deforestation rates have decreased, delivering genuine results. While many actors may have contributed to slowing deforestation rates, we can safely assume that MSPO certification is a part of this success. 

In key regions of production, palm oil cultivation is now limited to the existing acreage or brownfield areas; all current tropical forest is shielded, guaranteeing its survival.
Nevertheless, the MSPO is not yet widely known, even although the sustainability standard meets the EU’s key criteria. Bearing that in mind, while there is no one perfect sustainability certification standard, the EU should embrace the opportunity to explore the standards that countries such as Malaysia have realised. 

The fact that MSPO is deeply invested in human rights, labour rights as well as fair wages and highly responsive to breaches of regulations - acting quickly to correct violations - makes the partnership between regulators, companies, consumers and this standard all the more necessary. For governments, certification standards are means to pursue laudable goals; for companies, they are metrics they can use to guarantee sustainability. Meanwhile for consumers, they are assurances that they open their wallets only for products that can satisfy their consciences.

This article was published as part of the Sustainability First supplement by the Center for Sustainable Palm Oil Studies (CSPO). The full supplement is available on: