Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil

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Alice Luke
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Over the past several decades, palm oil has grown to be one of the most widely consumed commodities in the world, with over 75 million tons produced in the last year alone. Palm oil and palm oil derivatives are used in anything ranging from processed foods to cosmetics to cleaning products. The oil is most commonly sourced from Indonesia, where palm plantations cover almost 30% of the land area. But the growth of this industry has proven to have detrimental effects on tropical rainforests, peatlands, and the biodiversity within them: Namely, as rainforests are cleared to make room for palm plantations, several endangered species, including orangutans, tigers, and elephants are displaced and their survival greatly challenged. Laws within Indonesia and other palm-growing countries regarding palm sustainability are often weak or non-existent, providing little aid to the issue.

In 2004, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was established to allow companies to be assessed for the environmental impact of their palm oil production and earn a certification if they are deemed “sustainable.” And while the organization has grown exponentially in commercial popularity, many criticize the RSPO for falling short of its mission and failing to promote sustainable palm oil practices—some even go so far as to suggest that its shortcomings have hindered the palm oil industry from becoming more sustainable by allowing unsustainable practices to be swept under the rug.

All in all, the research I’ve done into the RSPO’s credibility has largely diminished my faith in the certification. Until more diligent measures are taken by the RSPO to hold companies accountable for the true effects of their palm oil usage, I would definitely take their certification with a grain of salt.

What it's made of:


Companies are able to apply for RSPO membership and certification and, if approved, these companies are allowed to display the RSPO Certified stamp on the packaging of their products. Since its establishment, the RSPO has developed significant prevalence within the palm oil industry. Globally, 19% of all global palm oil is now RSPO certified, including the palm oil used by several large companies, including Nestle, Kelloggs, and L’Oreal. This RSPO certification often makes consumers feel more comfortable purchasing products by these companies. Consequently, the integrity of the organization significantly impacts whether or not global economies are able to develop a greater affinity for sustainable palm oil.

Unfortunately, this integrity has been questioned in recent years. In 2018, researchers at the University of Queensland in Australia came out with data suggesting that RSPO-certified plantations actually show no superiority in impact when it comes to habitat and biodiversity conservation, nor did they display greater socioeconomic benefits to local communities. The RSPO has responded in opposition to this study, citing evidence of lower deforestation rates within certified concessions. But while RSPO-certified companies have contributed lower deforestation rates than non-certified companies, it is still clear that the organization has fallen short of its apparent goals, as RSPO-certified concessions have still retained the same rate of loss in orangutan population. Considering all areas of import, it appears the RSPO has failed to hold companies accountable by providing certifications on limited bases and not taking in companies’ entire environmental and social impacts.

How it's made:


It seems that the shortfalls of the RSPO lie predominantly in a lack of strength and diligence within its assessment processes. According to the RSPO, the organization audits companies for certification based on adherence to a set of standards they refer to as their “Principles and Criteria.” These Principles and Criteria are made to assess company’s practices for transparency, economic viability, law abidance, environmental responsibility, social responsibility, and ethical labor usage. The RSPO also conducts audits on all parts of growers’ and companies’ supply chain to eliminate the possibility of sustainable and unsustainable palm oil mixing and shrill passing with the certification. However, the RSPO’s assessment practices leave several holes for unsustainable palm companies to slip through with a certificate. While the RSPO does not permit certified companies to have developed new plantation land from primary forest area after the year of 2005, this allows countless growers that have already contributed to mass deforestation in the past to operate with RSPO certifications, free of any qualifying markations to publicize this. Additionally, the RSPO does not prohibit the destruction of secondary forest land (forests that have been revitalized and grown back after previous deforestation) by their certificate carriers. This leaves 167,000 square miles of forest unprotected by the RSPO’s certification in Indonesia alone.

It also seems that the RSPO fails to ensure sustainability with regards to emissions, as it does not require companies to work to reduce their emissions in any way, nor does it even require public disclosure of these emissions. This is a huge weak point in the RSPO’s operations, as nearly 50 percent of all of Indonesia’s emissions come from clearing peatlands, with 6 to 8 percent of all global emissions attributed to the burning of rainforests in Indonesia.

In light of these prevailing flaws within the RSPO’s criteria for certifying key players in the palm industry, it is difficult for me to believe in the integrity of the organization.

Who makes it:


I found there to be a bit of a mixed bag when it came to the trustworthiness of decision makers in the RSPO. The organization’s executive board consists mainly of growers, manufacturers, investors and other stakeholding members within the palm oil industry. This leaves lots of space to question the motives behind the organization’s establishment and subsequently the legitimacy of its certifications. On the flip side, it appears that the individuals who carry out audits on companies and growers for the RSPO are fairly credible. These auditors, whom the RSPO calls “Certification Bodies,” have each been accredited by the Assurance Services International (ASI) to “undertake credible, consistent audits.” In order to receive certification, the RSPO also requires third-party verification of their auditors’ findings. 

The RSPO has responded to criticisms of their methods by explaining that they have a “Research Agenda” that aims to help them make more informed efforts toward promoting sustainability. Nonetheless, when considering all the ways that the RSPO fails to properly assess sustainability, I struggle to trust the organization’s full credibility on the topic. While reforms within the organization can take years to come to fruition, the organization’s questionable certification continues to wield great agency among consumer behavior. Until they are able to possess more quantifiable goals and actually hold their members to adequate standards of transparency and sustainability, the RSPO’s certification will not be a credible identifier of sustainable palm oil.