Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) FAQs
What is it?
The RSPO is an industry-led initiative with a stated aim to “make sustainable palm oil the norm”. It was set up in 2004 with the backing of the WWF in response to growing evidence of the devastation that palm oil production resulted in. Its 2000+ strong members include the biggest palm oil producers and traders. Some of these are amongst the industry's worst culprits for human rights and environmental abuses, such as Wilmar International and Golden Agri-Resources (Sinar Mas).
What does the RSPO mean by 'sustainable' palm oil?
The RSPO guidelines state that producers should respect and consider local people, guarantee that no 'high conservation value' (HCV) areas are cleared, and minimise environmental impacts of production.
The RSPO does not question plantations or their expansion per se, and some people feel it is impossible to call such large scale monoculture 'sustainable' due to the pesticides, water and land required. The HCV classification crucially does not protect peatland or secondary forest.
Do RSPO members use Certified 'Sustainable' Palm Oil?
Not necessarily. Being a member does not mean they are certified, it means they have a timebound commitment to become more sustainable, and must report progress.
What if a company says its palm oil is RSPO certified?
Is it referring to all ingredients from palm kernel oil and palm oil derivatives (which make up about 60% of global palm oil use)1 as well as palm fruit oil?
Is it actually using 'sustainable' palm oil (from a segregated supply chain), or just supporting 'sustainable' palm oil through the Greenpalm or Mass Balance schemes?
What are the various types of Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO)?
There are two for using 'sustainable' palm oil, which shows a stronger commitment:
- Identity Preserved – where CSPO is traceable back to a single plantation
- Segregated – where CSPO is kept separate from uncertified oil but may be mixed from several certified mills
And there are two for supporting sustainable palm oil. These are easier and cheaper options:
- Mass Balance – where CSPO may be mixed with uncertified oil, but the refinery can only sell the same amount of CSPO oil as it purchased
- Book and Claim (or Greenpalm) – where RSPO certified growers earn one certificate for each metric tonne of CSPO produced, which they sell to users of uncertified palm oil
How do we know what RSPO members are doing?
The RSPO requirement for annual reporting from members makes it possible to see how much palm oil they are actually using (fruit oil, kernel oil and derivatives), and what forms of certification are used. This means that companies have got far less scope to greenwash: organisations like Ethical Consumer can analyse the information and rank companies according to their actual usage and not just their promises, helping consumers to make more informed choices.
In 2015 the RSPO terminated the membership of 15 companies, and suspended 62 more, for failure to report.
Weaknesses of the RSPO
As well as standards accused of being weak, there are many more criticisms of the RSPO. Perhaps most seriously these include failure to adequately audit companies or penalise them when they break the rules.[3,4,5,6]
According to Tomasz Johnson of the Environmental Investigation Agency: “The credibility or efficacy of the RSPO is entirely reliant on NGOs...to look at what's actually happening and try and enforce the standard. If we don't do it, any number of sins will just get rubber stamped and greenwashed."
The organisation also faces the same problem as any other industry-led sustainability initiative: trying to get all members to agree to improving standards is a slow and complicated process and one which may clash with companies' profit motives. This can result in the lowest common denominator winning.
Recent developments at the RSPO
The RSPO accountability structure should be more reliable at ensuring compliance than relying on individual companies, but does need to be substantially improved.
The RSPO Complaints Panel has responded to recent exposure of human rights abuses on RSPO member palm plantations by requesting the RSPO Secretariat conduct an independent assessment of RSPO certification bodies.
They are also developing an Independent Appeals Mechanism to “reduce risk of conflict of interest in the RSPO Complaint System.”
Going beyond existing RSPO standards
Many people think the RSPO doesn't go far enough. The WWF response to the 2013 revision of the RSPO Principle's and Criteria stated that while they were the best compromise and better than the previous standards, they did not ensure that companies using CSPO were acting responsibly. The WWF suggested companies needed to take further actions, for example, immediate reporting of GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions.
Some companies have worked with NGOs to create their own standards that go beyond those of the RSPO.
Golden Agri-Resources, the world's second largest palm oil plantation company, worked with The Forest Trust and Greenpeace to develop the High Carbon Stock (HCS) approach. HCS identifies forest that should be protected for its biomass and biodiversity, while current RSPO standards only protect primary forest. HCS involves working with traditional communities to map an area, deciding a conservation plan and gaining consent of the community. Companies and their suppliers must stop any clearance of potential HCS areas or peatland to begin the process.
The Palm Oil Innovation Group (POIG) is a group of industry and civil society organisations aiming to improve RSPO environmental standards, so that certified growers use the HCS approach, protect peatlands, and report greenhouse gas emissions. POIG also calls for better 'partnerships with communities', to ensure food security, effective conflict resolution, and workers rights.
Campaigns from the Union of Concerned Scientists and Rainforest Action Network call on companies to commit to Deforestation and Peat Free palm oil, and Conflict Free palm oil.
The RSPO did announce in May 2015 that it was “working on voluntary guidelines aimed at further enhancing the existing standards' requirements on issues such as Deforestation, Peatland Development and Indigenous Peoples rights”. In June companies including Walmart and Starbucks called on the RSPO to make these new RSPO+ (or 'RSPO NEXT') standards compulsory.