The Great RSPO Membership Myth: Why Buying from RSPO Members Is Meaningless

By Rainforest Action Network

“Companies buying palm oil need to be aware that the only way to ensure sustainable sourcing is to buy certified sustainable palm oil from companies that have been assessed against the RSPO standards. Buying from RSPO members is not enough.” – WWF, August 2010

Thin Mints Contain Rainforest Destroying-Palm Oil

Girl Scouts USA (GSUSA) has actively resisted getting rainforest-destroying palm oil out of their cookies for years now. Instead, they tout the fact that their two cookie bakers are members of the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).

But Girl Scouts USA and anyone else touting RSPO membership as a green seal of approval — or anyone who even claims that RSPO membership makes a company’s products “orangutan friendly” — are gravely misleading the public with false claims.

Girl Scouts of America sold roughly 198 million boxes of Girl Scout cookies in 2009. One of the two cookie manufacturers, Little Brownie Bakers, bakes over 4,500,000 Thin Mints per day during peak baking times. And guess what’s going into every single one of those cookies? Palm oil, a controversial commodity closely connected to widespread deforestation and social conflicts in Indonesia.

RSPO Members Have Been Documented Destroying Orangutan Habitat

For a cookie business raking in $714 million a year with a presence in all 50 states and 2.7 million young sales women, one would think that Girl Scouts USA would make sure that the ingredients they’re using are in line with the Girl Scout values and mission to make the world a better place and use resources wisely.

The RSPO is a body of stakeholders including palm oil producers, processors, traders, retailers, banks and NGOs working to promote the growth, production, distribution and use of sustainable palm oil. There is a very important distinction between RSPO membership and RSPO certification. RSPO certification is a seal of approval that is given to palm oil grown on a plantation that has been certified through a verification of the production process by accredited certifying agencies. In theory, the “certified sustainable” palm oil (RSPO oil) is traceable through the supply chain by certification of each facility along the supply chain that processes or uses the certified oil.

RSPO membership, on the other hand, is much different. As we recently advised Girl Scouts USA CEO Kathy Cloninger in a letter of concern about the palm oil in Girl Scout cookies:

Although Girl Scout cookie bakers have RSPO membership, RSPO membership does not provide any assurance that palm oil supplied by member companies is sustainable. Member companies have been documented clearing forest, peatland and critical wildlife habitat while ignoring human rights — all of which are prohibited in the RSPO principles and criteria. In essence RSPO membership does not ensure that deforestation, orangutan extinction, and climate change are not found in Girl Scout cookies.

According to an independent audit commissioned by Unilever, RSPO member Sinar Mas has contributed to the opening up of deep peatland, deforestation of orangutan habitat, and occurrences of fire hot spots.

Mongabay reports, “The [RSPO] has been battered over the past year with revelations that some members have continued to destroy ecologically sensitive habitats. Prominent members, including Unilever and Nestle, have had to act outside the RSPO process to address misconduct by RSPO-member suppliers.”

Sinar Mas is not the only RSPO member that has been caught red-handed. There are many cases that illustrate the fact that RSPO members regularly violate the principles and criteria they have agreed to respect with their membership. Take the example of RSPO Member IOI Group. While it has some RSPO-certified plantations, the same company has others that are the source of major social conflict.

Conservation scientists report critical habitat protection weaknesses in the RSPO system. William Laurance of James Cook University and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute argues that the initiative’s objectives are undermined by the composition of its membership, which is dominated by palm oil industry growers, processors, and traders. He says:

[T]his conflict of interest results in lax requirements for membership, a cumbersome complaints process for reporting violations, and lack of oversight and enforcement. It needs to get tougher with member companies that are destroying large swaths of primary forest. Otherwise, it risks becoming an apologist for an environmentally destructive industry.

Until RSPO membership means more than simply paying a few thousand dollars a year in membership fees, any company or organization that claims any product made by an RSPO member is orangutan or forest friendly is grossly misleading the public. Orangutans and forests will only be truly protected in Sumatra and Borneo once expansion of palm oil in fragile tropical forests ceases and a moratorium on deforestation for palm oil is both adopted and implemented.