The POAI would like to note that the following post is based on research done by POAI members and reflects the issue as we understand it. For any feedback or criticism, please email the POAI at UAPOAI@gmail.com
How “Sustainable” is the RSPO?
by Nicolas Alexandre, Kim Kelly, and Stacey Tecot on behalf of Palm Oil Awareness Initiative
NOTE: The opinions and information expressed here are based on research done over the last several months via the internet and through contacting experts in this field. We have summarized this information to the best of our ability and this blog post is a summary of that information to the best of our knowledge.
Once aware of the problems associated with palm oil, many of us are often left feeling powerless as consumers. Palm oil is in 50% of packaged goods in the United States (e.g., food, cosmetics, cleaning products), so it is nearly impossible to avoid it.
The Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was first envisioned in 2001 by the World Wildlife Fund as a governing body that would promote the use of sustainable palm oil products through a global standard. Consumers could then use products containing palm oil guilt-free! In fact, many environmental and zoological groups promote foods with RSPO-certified palm oil by listing them on palm oil-friendly shopping guides. But the environmental community has also heavily criticized the RSPO as greenwashing. So what’s a consumer to do? What exactly IS the RSPO? Who are its members? How do they ensure that their members maintain sustainable practices? Are consumers the only ones buying into the RSPO, or are producers upholding their end of the bargain as well?
These were some of the questions we had as we began looking into RSPO certified palm oil to determine if it really was something we could use to help make informed consumer choices. Here we attempt to answer these questions, discuss some of the criticisms about the RSPO, and then explain why we do not believe that the RSPO is currently our best bet in terms of stopping deforestation, climate change, habitat destruction, and human rights abuses rampant in the palm oil industry. We also offer a few suggestions.
What is the RSPO? The RSPO was borne out of an informal collaboration between World Wildlife Fund, Aarhus United UK Ltd., Migros, Malaysian Palm Oil Association, and Unilever. Their original idea was to develop a governing body that would promote the use of sustainable palm oil products through a global standard.
Who are RSPO members? Today, membership in the organization tops one thousand members. There are two types of members, Ordinary Members and Affiliated Members. Ordinary Membership in the RSPO is limited to groups that fit into one of the following categories: oil palm producers; palm oil processers and traders; consumer goods manufacturers; retailers; banks and investors; and social and conservation-oriented non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Affiliated Membership is open to organizations or individuals who are not actively involved in any of the above-mentioned 7 sectors, and have expressed an interest in the objective and activities of the RSPO. To find out more about these different memberships click here.
What is Expected of RSPO Members?
Members are expected to maintain active and constructive communication with the RSPO, support its efforts, help develop and implement plans of action aimed at promoting sustainable palm oil production, procurement, and consumption. Additionally, they are expected to operate transparently and inform the RSPO on these plans of action. Full principles and criteria can be found here.
Our Concerns About the RSPO
1. Green Palm Certificates.
The RSPO backs ‘Green Palm Certificates’, whereby RSPO-certified palm oil producers can convert their certified oil into certificates (one ton of certified crude palm oil or palm kernel oil converts to one certificate) that can then be purchased by manufacturers who use palm oil, palm kernel oil, or any palm-based derivative in their product manufacturing. These manufacturers, through their purchase of these GreenPalm certificates, are then able to make the claim that they support the production of RSPO-certified sustainable palm oil. Additionally, the full value of each certificate is then sent back to the RSPO producer to “reinvest this premium to help tackle the environmental and social issues created by the production of palm oil” (GreenPalm.org).
However, we believe that GreenPalm Certificates are problematic:
- Little is known about what RSPO plantations and palm oil producers are doing with the money that is returned to them from GreenPalm Certificates. For example, to date about 53,000 GreenPalm certificates have been sold, amounting to about $1 million in revenue to RSPO certified palm oil producers and plantations. However, no information on what these producers / plantations are doing with that money, and how it is being reinvested to “help tackle the environmental and social issues created by the production of palm oil” is available on the GreenPalm website or anywhere else that we looked for this information. So, the question has to be asked: are GreenPalm Certificates actually generating revenue used to combat the issues rampant in the palm oil industry? Where is this money going and how is it being used to tackle these environmental and social issues? More transparency and reporting of how these monies are used by these plantations and producers to alleviate these problems is sorely needed.
- While growers may be “sustainable”, that doesn’t guarantee that others in the supply chain are! In fact, transporters, other plantations owned by the same company, refiners, and manufacturers of food products often do not use sustainable practices, yet companies remain RSPO members because the grower is using Green Palm certificates.
- These overall company processes are neither controlled nor traceable.
- Only 5% of sustainable material is required for the product to be labeled “sustainable.” Further, it is unclear what constitutes “sustainable material”, as we were unable to find a real definition for this anywhere.
- Further, companies paying for GreenPalm Certificates do not address unsustainable practices in their own palm oil supply chains, nor do they help create a demand for sustainable palm oil that is traceable to the source.
So, it seems that Green Palm certificates actually aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on, as they do not promote or guarantee sustainable practices! To learn more about Green Palm Certificates, including what other groups have written about them, see these links:
2. The RSPO’s language is weak.
In a public debate with mongabay.com president Rhett Butler, the RSPO made vague statements about their policies and skirted around questions regarding repercussions for companies who violate its policies. When asked: “How do you deal with governments? Government knows the bad effects of planting oil palm on peat land, but they still convert forest for plantation. If a company gets a concession in forest area but that violates RSPO criteria, what happens?” the RSPO’s Adam Harrison responded “The RSPO needs to engage with policy makers in Indonesia on identifying HCV (High Conservation Value) areas and whether they are recognized under national rules. Companies take initiative but the RSPO needs to be involved to align policies”. One might ask why they aren’t doing this already!
Furthermore, the Secretary General of the RSPO was asked: “There is one member who is having problems with fire management. So can RSPO enforce compliance? There are several questions from the audience about this. Can the RSPO have any legal power?” He responded: “The rules of RSPO is very clear: no open burning. We have auditors going to the ground to check. If you have done open burning, you cannot become certified. We also have a complaints system. The ultimate sanction is to ask the member to leave. But we think it is the last thing that you should do. If you want to create change you have to guide change. We want them to change and to guide them towards change instead of expelling and doing nothing. We want to see net positive change on the ground. In all complaints we have looked at so far, both parties were right and both parties were wrong at the same time. Every complaint is handled here; it takes a long time to understand what the reality on the ground is. And then we decide how to move on.”
So exactly how much does the RSPO tolerate and what measures are they taking to guide these companies to change? Unfortunately these issues and measures the RSPO will take in order to enforce compliance and “guide” members to effect “positive change on the ground” are not well outlined in the RSPO literature or their policies as available on their website. As such, it is very difficult to understand just how the RSPO enformces compliance and what measures they have at their disposal to do so. Clarity on these issues is especially important for an organization on which so many consumers currently rely in order to make informed purchasing choices.
3. The RSPO lacks the power to enforce the rules and guidelines it has set forth, making it ineffectual.
Although member organizations are supposed to adhere to the principles and criteria set forth by the RSPO, RSPO members have been documented clearing critical wildlife habitat including forest and peatlands, as well as abusing and ignoring the human rights of workers on plantations, all of which are prohibited in the principles and criteria set by the RSPO. Some recent examples include:
- Nestle and Unilever (who manufacture consumer goods that contain palm oil) have had to act outside the RSPO to keep other members in line. For example, Unilever opened an independent audit to investigate Sinar Mas, a large Indonesian conglomerate, whose palm oil activities have been implicated in the destruction of peatland, orangutan habitats and slash-and-burn agricultural activities. After the investigation, the two companies decided independently to drop Sinar Mas from their purchasing line.
- A recent study by the Forest Peoples Programme, Sawit Watch and Transformasi Untuk Keadilan Indonesia in collaboration with 17 international, national, and grassroots partner organizations and supporters recently found that RSPO certified producers have often failed to obtain permission from local people to develop palm oil plantations on their lands (Parker 2013), resulting in “land grabs, violation of laws and court rulings, bulldozing people’s dwellings into creeks, selective consultation between companies and co-opted community representatives” (Chew 2013).
- In 2012 the World Wildlife Fund found that only 64 of the 92 (69%) producers in the RSPO submitted their required annual reports (WWF 2012).
- 53 growers disclosed how much crude palm oil they produced. Of that crude oil, 6.6 tons was reported as RSPO-certified, amounting to only 38% of RSPO certified palm oil production.
- ~1/2 disclosed how much land they own for production
- ~1/2 submitted a plan for land certification
- Only ~1/3 reported plans to become sustainable by 2015
For more information click here to read the Rainforest Action Network’s statement on the RSPO and here to watch a debate about the RSPO by experts on the issue.
What has the RSPO done to respond to these violations by its members? Sadly, the answer is very little. Although the RSPO members have signed on and agreed to certain principles and criteria, the organizational system of the RSPO affords them very little recourse, aside from suspending membership, in responding to violations. Here are some examples that demonstrate how “toothless” the RSPO has been:
- In a recent debate about the RSPO hosted by Mongabay.com, the Secretary General of the organization said in response to a question about punishment for violators: “Non-complying member organizations can simply opt to leave the RSPO in the midst of a complaint, and consequently they will not be governed by any of our rules.”
- This response suggests (in contrast to what was stated above by the RSPO that they would rather work with members in order to effect change) that the RSPO would rather cut non-compliant members loose than work with them to improve their practices. This comment conflicts with the stated mission and values of the RSPO, and the interest of those the RSPO claims it is serving through its mission.
- From the RSPO website: “RSPO is a voluntary scheme which means it has no legal way to enforce its members’ compliance with its Principles & Criteria. To deal with breaches against RSPO rules, the RSPO has established a complaints system which allows members or non-members to submit formal complaints against actions of specific RSPO members to the RSPO’s Complaints Panel. The Complaints Panel does not usually pass judgment but offers mediation and practical recommendations to all parties involved. The Complaints Process fulfills RSPO's need to address complaints against RSPO members in a manner that is reflective of the nature, mission and goals of RSPO, which strongly believes in mediation and supporting companies to improve.”
- We agree that mediation is critical in such situations, and an excellent path toward mutual understanding. However, the RSPO is not an unbiased organization capable of providing mediation for its own members. The RSPO does little to police its members and ensure that they are in fact contributing to sustainable palm oil production and distribution rather than intensifying the problems. Members pay fees and agree to abide by the principles and criteria, but little to nothing can be done if they do not.
This is not to say that the RSPO is all bad, or evil, or is intentionally trying to hoodwink consumers in some grand scheme of deception. To the contrary, the WWF and others started the RSPO with the best of intentions, and the hoped-for outcome was that in time it would become an effective and powerful organization that consumers could trust. And the RSPO has recently made some important contributions to stop problems rampant in the palm oil industry, including ordering palm oil giant KLK to leave Collingwood Bay in Papua New Guinea in order to protect the pristine forest and way of life of the indigenous people who call this area home. You can read more about this issue here and sign a petition to by the RAN network to support their efforts here.
Additionally, they recently kicked a notorious offender, Duta Palma, out of the RSPO after it had violated RSPO principles for years. Duta Palma is a palm oil producer that has been found to be noncompliant to RSPO principles in the past, yet continued to remain a member of the RSPO. For example, Duta Palma burned hundreds of hectares of protected tiger habitat illegally, which they did without even attempting to obtain a permit. However, after Greenpeace and other organizations lobbied the RSPO for several years to stand up to Duta Palma, it finally kicked Duta Palma out of the RSPO in May 2013, making it the first company it has taken action against since its inception over a decade ago.
What CAN be done and what should consumers be doing in the meantime?
Because so many of us are concerned about this issue, it is critical that we work with groups such as the Rainforest Action Network, Forest Trust, and Greenpeace. These are just a few of the leaders in this area who are putting pressure on the RSPO to become more than just another cog in the palm oil wheel. Real pressure needs to be put on the member organizations as well as the RSPO itself in order to encourage them to enact real and meaningful changes around who can become members, how members and their activities are overseen, and how good and bad activities are rewarded and punished, respectively.
Recently, activists celebrated a major victory in this area. Wilmar International, the world’s largest palm oil trader – long criticized for its practices in trading palm oil which have contributed to the deforestation, habitat destruction and human rights abuses of its workers – announced that it, along with its subsidiaries and third-party suppliers (which include Unilever), would commit to a no deforestation, no peat, and no exploitation of local peoples policy (click here to read a story about this).
Although some are skeptical, and continued pressure needs to be applied to ensure they follow through, it is a great example of where we as activists and concerned citizens can and should play a role in supporting companies to make responsible changes that will have tangible and meaningful effects on the palm oil industry.
Robert Hii is a regular contributor to the Huffington Post regarding issues with conflict palm oil, and says that there are four different types of palm oil to keep in mind.
1. According to Hii, the best type of palm oil available is “identity preserved” palm oil. Companies such as Agropalma in Brazil produce this type of palm oil by utilizing fresh fruit bunches from their plantations, which are then processed into crude palm oil prior to further refinement for various food and toiletry products.
2. The next best palm oil is “segregated” meaning that fresh fruit bunches come from plantations that are entirely certified under the RSPO. This fruit is then processed; however, no one actually knows what plantations it comes from.
3. The problem gets fuzzier when a “mass balance” system is used, in that roughly 5% of this palm oil is certified palm oil from a certified plantation, leaving 95% of the oil unaccounted for. This label is the most commonly used because suppliers can now label their product as sustainable by doing the bare minimum.
4. Finally, and most unfortunately, is palm oil with a “Greenpalm Certificate”. A Greenpalm Certificate is obtained when a grower is labeled as sustainable under the RSPO label by providing to them a report of annual yield in return for a certificate for every ton produced. Unfortunately, large snack food companies often use this form of palm oil.
Additional Resources and Sources for this Blog Post:
Butler, Rhett. "The Palm Oil Debate: Can the World's Most Productive Oilseed Be Less Damaging to the Environment?" Mongabay.com. 21 Oct. 2013. Web. 30 Nov. 2013.
Chew, Kristina. "Palm Oil Companies Keep Breaking the Promises They Claim to Keep." Care2.com. 11 Nov. 2013. Web. 30 Nov. 2013.
Hii, Robert. "Saving Orangutans One Company at a Time." The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 11 Nov. 2013. Web. 30 Nov, 2013.
Parker, Diana. “Palm oil companies ignoring community rights, new study shows.” Mongabay.com, 07 Nov. 2013. Web. 29 Nov, 2013. http://news.mongabay.com/2013/1107-dparker-palm-oil-rights.html "Greenpeace Demands RSPO Strengthen Standards, Expel Rogue Forest Destroyers." Press Release RSS. Greenpeace, 15 Apr. 2013. Web. 06 Dec. 2013.
"WWF Assessment of RSPO Member Palm Oil Producers 2013." WWF. World Wildlife Fund, n.d. Web. 06 Dec. 2013.
We thank Robert Hii for helpful feedback on this blog post. The opinions expressed in this post, and any errors that remain, are solely ours (POAI).