What is Sustainable Palm Oil? Part One

By Rainforest Action Network

RSPO Certified:

What is Sustainable Palm Oil? Part one of a three-part series.

Palm oil has become an increasingly hot topic over the last year. This thick, long-lasting oil is found in almost half of all consumer goods sold in grocery stores and it is also a main driver of rainforest destruction in Indonesia and Malaysia.

As controversy over the oil and its role in deforestation increases, so do calls for the oil to be made more sustainably. The real question, however, is: Can palm oil ever be made sustainably? This series is dedicated to exploring just that question.

Both businesses and consumers who are concerned about palm oil often look to the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) as the answer to the problem with palm oil. The RSPO is a voluntary initiative that aims to create a certification standard for “sustainable” oil palm. Nine percent of the world’s palm oil production is now certified according to the RSPO’s latest figures. Those who have some or all of their plantations certified under the RSPO include IOI, Kuala Lumpur Kepong (KLK) and Cargill.

But is RSPO-certified palm oil truly sustainable? The trick with most certification standards is that it they can either help businesses to improve their practices in a systematic way or they can systematically greenwash business-as-usual practices. The RSPO is a little of both.

As our allies at Greenpeace put it: “The aim of the [RSPO] is to create clear standards for producing sustainable palm oil but at present these standards are far too weak to ensure that forests and peatlands are not destroyed to meet growing demand for palm oil.”

As I’ve written in previous blog posts, sourcing RSPO-certified palm oil is a major step forward from sourcing from suppliers who are just RSPO members. But even with certification, there are major concerns. A few of the weaknesses of RSPO-certified palm oil include:

  1. Lack of Environmental Safeguards: Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions standards are not included in RSPO’s certification process. This means that draining and clearing peatlands — the largest single source of our planet’s stored carbon and one of the most powerful defense mechanisms against climate change — is permissible.
  2. Lack of Social Safeguards: Although the social safeguards in RSPO’s certification criteria look good on paper, they are seldom followed. This was evidenced recently by one of the RSPO’s founding members, IOI Group, which is currently under major global scrutiny for breaching RSPO Code of Conduct with serious human rights abuses.
  3. Lack of Transparency and Enforcement: In the case of IOI, the RSPO announced in April 2011 that IOI would face sanctions if the company didn’t resolve its social conflict by May 2, 2011. It is now more than a month past that deadline and the RSPO has not done anything to reprimand IOI. Meanwhile the social conflict has escalated.

If companies like Cargill are going to rely on the RSPO then they need to actively work to improve it — and that means more than simply continuing “to work with the Indonesian Palm Oil Association (GAPKI) and the Indonesian government to advocate for sustainable palm oil development,” as stated in its 2010 and 2011 Palm Oil Commitments. If you want to know more about these industry groups whose mandate is to expand palm oil at any cost, stay tuned for the next part of our three-part series.