A lobbying organisation's perspective

WWF was instrumental in getting a small number of palm growers, manufacturers (including Unilever) and retailers (including J Sainsbury) to join together in 2004 to set up the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). This came about as a response to mounting evidence that palm oil production was wreaking havoc in tropical zones of the world, and especially in south-east Asia, in terms of environmental destruction, widespread air pollution from the burning of large areas of forests, and the loss of endangered wildlife species. There was also mounting evidence of human rights abuses of rural people caught in the way of the rapid expansion of palm oil plantations. The RSPO’s stated aim is to ‘make sustainable palm oil the norm’.

Why did WWF get involved? After campaigning against the senseless loss of wildlife and destruction of rainforests, WWF decided that the only way to tackle the problem was to engage constructively with the producers, traders and processors to get them to change their practices. WWF ‘envisions a global marketplace based on socially acceptable and environment-friendly production and sourcing of palm oil. [They] aim to encourage increased demand for, and use of, goods produced using such practices.’

These days, RSPO has 4000+ members and unites diverse stakeholders from the seven sectors of the palm oil industry to develop and implement global standards for sustainable palm oil:

  • oil palm producers
  • processors or traders
  • consumer goods manufacturers
  • retailers
  • banks/investors
  • environmental and
  • social non-governmental organisations (NGOs)

RSPO guidelines state that producers should respect local people, guarantee the integrity of what are called areas of ‘high conservation value’ (HCV) and make concerted and measurable efforts to reduce the environmental impacts of production. By 2014, ten years after its establishment, most of the major users of palm oil had committed to production systems and methods that the RSPO deemed ‘sustainable’. RSPO was able to certify 19% of global palm oil production as sustainable. In 2019, this figure is still 19%, but the overall production has continued to increase.

Controversially, RSPO does not require its members to use sustainable palm oil. Instead membership signifies that they have signed up to become more sustainable at a future date and have agreed to report on their progress, which allows NGOs to evaluate and publicise their outputs and practices. Supporters of RSPO rightly point out that by increasing the number of routes towards sustainable production, the organisation is able to cast its net wider, recruit and educate more members, and ultimately set the entire industry on a more sustainable footing. Does it have any effect? Well, in 2018, the RSPO terminated the membership of four companies, and suspended 55 more, for repeated failure to report on their practices as stipulated.

There are strident critics of the RSPO, notably Greenpeace, who describe it as ‘woefully substandard’ and ‘in some cases … colluding … to disguise violations’ of its own principles and thereby mislead the public and tarnish the reputations of the more progressive actors in the palm oil industry (Greenpeace 2018 Moment of Truth). They also argue that RSPO’s definition of ‘sustainable’ is questionable.

Going beyond RSPO standards

With the RSPO let down by the practices of some of its most powerful members, key players have attempted to find alternative ways to ensure truly responsible palm oil reaches the market. The Palm Oil Innovation Group (POIG) is a more recent response on the part of a smaller group of progressive companies and NGOs in the sector to these multi-faceted challenges. Launched in 2013, POIG is a multi-stakeholder initiative, supported by Greenpeace and other NGOs, that promotes the adoption of responsible palm oil production practices through developing and sharing a credible and verifiable benchmark that builds on the RSPO. Independent third-party verification of standards is a clear requirement. Through this initiative, many of the biggest global brands and palm oil companies have adopted commitments to achieve ‘No Deforestation, No Peatland and No Exploitation’ palm oil.

One notable method developed by The Forest Trust and Greenpeace to decrease the environmental footprint of palm oil is the High Carbon Stock (HCS) approach. This approach has a scientifically rigorous method for identifying a wide range of forest types that could be protected from palm oil production. It also stipulates how companies should work with traditional and local communities. The HCS approach is included in the revised RSPO standards, but Greenpeace Indonesia has pointed out that ‘the new rules will take at least two years to come into effect and right now numerous RSPO members are destroying rainforests with impunity.’

Conclusions

The complex nature of the environmental and social issues that confront the palm oil sector as it continues to expand its operations globally has attracted widespread, vocal criticism. When it was launched, the RSPO was an innovative experiment in self-regulation that was ahead of its time and has been replicated in other sectors (for instance, soy production). It has brought a wide range of stakeholders together and, over the years, it has chalked up notable progress on the road to greater sustainability in the sector. To its critics, however, it has been most successful at fending off more direct and consequential government intervention and controls. At the same, they say, it has not properly sanctioned offending members. Tightening up practices in the sector would gain the trust of the vast numbers of consumers of palm oil around the world.

However, the demands on the sector and the RSPO from its critics are vast and ever-deepening. This is right and good, because achieving truly sustainable production and supply of any farmed product is extremely complex, expensive and time-consuming, and palm oil is no exception. Seen from the perspective of some of the major stakeholders, including governments, these criticisms just create a ‘moving target’ where the demands ratchet up every year and amount to an attack on the narrative of overwhelming economic success that palm oil represents to these countries.

Which view do you hold in this debate? What kinds of initiatives might make the RSPO more effective?

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Engaging with Controversies in the Food System

EIT Food