RSPO criticisms investigated

Palm oil is one of the world’s most contentious ingredients, linked to rainforest destruction, climate change, and human rights violations. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) says it aims to “make sustainable palm oil the norm”, but there are several problems with the RSPO.

Here we look at the main criticisms of the RSPO, and explain its role in Ethical Consumer’s own palm oil rating.

The RSPO is the world’s largest and most recognisable palm oil standard. It has over 5,000 members worldwide, claims to certify 19% of the world’s palm oil and is favoured by brands such as PepsiCo, Cargill and Nestle.

However, the scheme is accused of everything from certifying plantations involved in child labour to enabling corporate greenwash. We run through the main criticisms below.

1. It does not adequately audit companies.

Auditing is an important way for certification schemes to check whether companies they are working with are living up to the required standards. Auditing can take many shapes, from unannounced factory visits to interviews with workers. 

The RSPO has been accused of failing to adequately audit members to ensure they aren’t breaking the RSPO standards, leading Greenpeace in 2019 to call itabout as much use as a chocolate teapot.”

Greenpeace’s 2018 report The Final Countdown provided examples of RSPO members that had allegedly violated its standards, including Genting Plantations. The company faced accusations that an orangutan was killed on site, and three of its subsidiaries were accused of illegally operating and planting palm in Productive Forest areas. In response, Ferrero and Mars said they would take action to remove Genting from their supply chains.

In response to a formal complaint filed by the NGO Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation (BOS) in 2018, the RSPO introduced remedial steps for Genting in relation to the killing of the orangutan, and stated that the Genting subsidiaries involved in illegal land clearing had ceased to do so since they were taken over by Genting. 

In 2020, another report by the group Transnational Palm Oil Labour Solidarity (TPOLS) claimed that five RSPO-certified oil plantations in Indonesia were involved in rampant labour abuses, such as paying under minimum wage, exposing workers to hazardous chemicals, and suppression of unions. According to TPOLS, they had managed to connect Nestle to these plantations, as it allegedly sourced some of its palm oil from mills that buy palm fruit from them.

According to a 2018 Profundo report, commissioned by Friends of the Earth, RSPO certified plantations had also been involved in forced labour, child labour and discrimination towards women, and were involved in land conflict with local communities.

Profundo said the RSPO “failed to conduct proper monitoring and implement sanctions with members that commit violations”. It added that its “auditors are fundamentally failing to identify and mitigate unsustainable practices by oil palm firms.”

Amnesty International called the RSPO assessment system “not credible”, and said monitoring of its criteria (especially regarding labour issues) was “extremely weak and based on a superficial assessment system”.

Palm oil seeds cut open

2. It is slow to penalise members that break the rules.

The RSPO is also accused of failing to penalise companies that break the rules.

Firstly, according to investigations, it can take years to process complaints without ever reaching a satisfactory solution. A 2019 report by Grassroots and the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) stated that one complaint had been open nine and a half years. On average, it took 700 days before complaints were closed.

Secondly, there have been instances where companies accused of violating the rules have simply withdrawn from RSPO certification before any rulings and sanctions have been issued. For example, a plantation in Peru was suspected of violating RSPO standards, but withdrew from RSPO certification before a ruling had been issued. Therefore it avoided facing RSPO sanctions, such as informing the member that it must stop working until improvements are made, or suspending or officially terminating its membership.

The EIA report states that the possibility of members withdrawing from the RSPO “seems to disincentivise the RSPO from sanctioning members over complaints to minimise its risk of losing members.”

Other ways RSPO members are said to have avoided accountability include the sale of company assets to non RSPO members, or creation of new companies, in order to distance the accused subsidiary or plantation from its owner.

Even when the RSPO is aware of a complaint or potential violation of its standards, some argue that whether the company gets penalised can depend on how much attention NGOs and activists draw to the issue. According to Tomasz Johnson of the EIA,

“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."

3. It’s overly influenced by its members.

The RSPO describes itself as a “global, multi-stakeholder initiative”. It states that it unites oil palm producers; processors or traders; consumer goods manufacturers; retailers; banks and investors; and NGOs. 

However, a 2019 report by the Transnational Institute (TI) looking at RSPO highlighted how standard-setting in multi-stakeholder initiatives is often “dominated by companies and large Northern NGOs, with little or no representation of workers or impacted communities.”

It used the RSPO as an example, breaking down the 4,000 RSPO members as follows:

  • 41 environmental NGOs
  • 12 social development NGOs
  • No labour unions
  • Almost no indigenous community representation

The remaining majority of its members were therefore companies.

As civil society organisations make up only a small proportion of RSPO membership, this could make it difficult for them to effectively scrutinise and challenge standards that are suggested and supported by the majority of corporate members. 

Critics also question whether the RSPO remains independent from influential members. For example, TI claims that IOI Corporation, one of Malaysia’s biggest conglomerates, was clearly non-compliant with RSPO requirements. Even so, there was a “long fight to expel IOI” because it was on the governing board of the RSPO. “The fight first had to separate the complaints panel from the Board, and even then it was hard to expel the corporation.”

What’s more, 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.

image: green paint greenwashed wall greenwashing example of greenwashing

4. It enables greenwashing

In 2018, over 100 global organisations signed an open letter from Friends of the Earth International and the World Rainforest Movement, stating,

“the RSPO has been used by the palm oil industry to greenwash corporate destruction and human rights abuses, while it continues to expand business, forest destruction and profits.”

Companies regularly state in corporate responsibility reports that they are RSPO members, which could make it look like they are taking action on palm oil when they are actually doing very little. Reckitt Benckiser, for example, owner of brands such as Dettol, Nurofen, Strepsils and Finish, has been an RSPO member since 2006. Yet, according to its 2019 reporting to RSPO, only around 10% of the palm oil and derivatives it used was RSPO certified.

The Transnational Institute also highlighted that the public might perceive the RSPO Palm Trace label as more effective than it actually is. It stated,

“if a product is labelled with RSPO’s Palm Trace label, the public perception is that this means it is ‘good palm oil’ (with implications that no deforestation happened, that it is produced organically, with good labour conditions and fair prices etc etc) whereas in reality it is merely evidence of refiners, manufacturers and retailers signing up to a much more limited set of criteria, only some of which is properly audited and evaluated.”

Amnesty International says the “RSPO is acting as a shield which deflects greater scrutiny of its members' practices”.

5. Its standards aren’t high enough.

Some also suggest that RSPO requirements for suppliers are too low.

For example, it took years of campaigning for the RSPO to take meaningful action against peat clearance, peatland being a major storage point for carbon emissions. Draining these carbon-rich organic soils for plantations can result in massive CO2 emissions and other environmental problems. 20% of oil palm planting takes place on peat soil, according to conservation group Wetlands International.

In 2018 the RSPO tightened its standards so it now prohibits suppliers from clearing peatlands for palm plantations.

But the RSPO still doesn’t fully take into account recent deforestation. Some RSPO certified palm oil plantations occupy land that until was forest or wildlife habitat as recently as 30 years ago.

The RSPO states that in 2018 it introduced “new requirements to ensure the effective contribution of RSPO to halting deforestation”. Despite the RSPO claiming to have strengthened its criteria in 2018,  a 2020 study published in the Science of the Total Environment journal shows what is happening in practice. The study states that three-quarters of oil palm concessions in Indonesia and Malaysian Borneo certified by the RSPO occupied land that was forest and/or wildlife habitat after 1990.

The study author, Roberto Cazzolla Gatti, stated,

“The fact that someone else did deforestation just a few years before does not absolve the palm oil plantation’s owner and definitely does not justify a sustainability label by a certification scheme”.

The study claimed that some RSPO suppliers had replaced the habitats of endangered mammals and biodiverse tropical forests. These results could appear to contradict prior research that suggested RSPO certification effectively reduced deforestation.

However, Cazzolla Gatti also states that if the RSPO adopted a policy of only certifying production that doesn't come from recently cleared forests and endangered species habitat, from say the past 50 years, there wouldn't be enough plantations available to supply the global demand for environmentally friendly palm oil. He says,

“So the fundamental question in this regard is: do we [...] really need palm oil?”

The RSPO commented: “These standards are not intended to absolve members of any past issues, rather RSPO seeks to ensure that members implement practices which safeguard the environment, protect human rights, and avoid the recurrence of past problems.” View the full response here.

Orangutans in forest

6. It may not make a difference.

A 2018 study published in the Environmental Research Letters journal examined the effectiveness of RSPO plantations compared to non-certified plantations in terms of delivering sustainability objectives.

It used Indonesian Borneo (Kalimantan) as a case study. It gathered names, parent companies and provinces of all 535 palm oil concessions in Indonesian Borneo. 91 plantations were RSPO certified (owned by 41 companies). The study concluded that no significant difference was found between certified and non-certified concessions.

The study compared the activities of the RSPO certified plantations with the non-certified plantations in the area. It examined the following 6 criteria:

  • orangutan presence and density
  • number of fire hotspots detected
  • rates of poverty
  • provision of healthcare facilities
  • yields
  • profit

The study claimed that areas local to the RSPO certifications would allegedly see improvements in all these areas, according to RSPO claims. 

The study concluded that RSPO certification did result in better economic sustainability than that seen in non-certified plantations. However, the environmental and social benefits were unclear. It found no evidence that RSPO certified plantations retained orangutan populations more effectively. There was no evidence of decreased fire hotspots in RSPO certified areas. 

Although it only assessed these 6 criteria, based on what information was publicly available and previously published criticisms of the RSPO, the study authors believe the results serve as useful indicators of the scheme’s performance.

7. It may not be well-suited to smallholders

Smallholders account for about 40% of total global palm oil production. The RSPO has a Smallholder Support Fund and various other mechanisms for including smallholders. 

Yet, there have been concerns that small-scale palm oil producers may be excluded from RSPO membership, or were not sufficiently consulted or involved when the initiative was first created.

Achieving certification can be time-consuming, making it less accessible to smaller-scale producers that have fewer resources than larger companies. While a vast 86% of non-biofuel palm oil imported to Europe in 2019 was RSPO certified, small-holders may therefore be excluded from European markets.

A 2020 article in the Land Use Policy journal shared the results of interviews with approximately 180 smallholders in Indonesia in July 2018. It stated that smallholders interviewed in its study had limited understanding of the costs and challenges involved in RSPO certification. 

In particular, the study highlighted how smallholders depended on “extensive external support” from NGOs in order to get RSPO certification. 98% of those interviewed said NGO support was “key to their continuing participation in the RSPO certification program”.

It therefore appears that the burden fell to NGOs to support smallholders through the certification process. 

How Ethical Consumer views the RSPO

Ethical Consumer has long been aware of the criticisms of RSPO, and agree with many NGOs that it is far from resolving issues in the palm industry. We give companies a best rating if they avoid the use of palm oil and derivatives. We also try to provide information about palm oil free options whenever possible.

Nonetheless, we do believe that RSPO can indicate better practice when used in the right way. 

Firstly, while some studies have shown RSPO certification to be ineffective, others have shown it to be beneficial in some aspects. For example, a 2017 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) journal stated that RSPO certification lowered deforestation by 33%. The debate around the effectiveness of RSPO certification for different sustainability metrics therefore appears to be ongoing. 

Second, of the major palm oil certifying bodies, the RSPO appears to potentially be the best on offer. A report by the National Committee of the Netherlands stated that RSPO certification showed the best results in relation to biodiversity protection and level of assurance, significantly better than alternatives such as (Indonesian Sustainable Palm Oil) ISPO and (Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil) MSPO.

Smaller certifiers such as the Rainforest Alliance were shown in some respects to have less stringent requirements than the RSPO, for example having a cut-off date for deforestation of 2014 in contrast to the RSPO’s cut-off date of 2005. (And the Rainforest Alliance has announced it is ending its palm certification scheme.) Other types of palm oil, such as Traidcraft's Fairpalm which is organic and fair trade, are more expensive than either RSPO or organic palm oil and it seems unlikely that the use of this will spread beyond smaller ethical companies to large manufacturers.

Third, RSPO membership improves transparency around palm oil sourcing, requiring members to report on their palm sourcing annually. This provides some clear information about the sourcing practices of some of the world’s largest palm-oil users, from Nestle to Mondelez. It encourages members to publish a list of their suppliers and grievances, and if the member chooses to do so this has obvious benefits for traceability and accountability. 

Not all RSPO is the same

Crucially though, RSPO membership can look very different depending on the company. As mentioned above, some companies maintain membership while doing very little to address their actual supply chains. Other members can trace all palm oil sourced right back to RSPO plantations. 

This is partly due to the mechanisms offered by RSPO for certifications: companies can choose between sourcing Segregated, Identity Preserved or Book & Claim palm oil. 

Segregated and Identity Preserved means that the certified palm oil is kept separate from ordinary palm oil throughout the supply chain. These can be more readily traced back to the certified plantation, meaning the palm oil in the products was sourced from RSPO certified suppliers. 

This is in contrast to Book & Claim palm oil, which involves companies using uncertified palm oil, and then paying for a certificate from an RSPO-certified grower to ‘offset’ this. Book & Claim is a much less effective mechanism for ensuring responsible sourcing. 

When we rate a company’s approach to palm oil, we therefore look at which RSPO mechanisms they use and what quantity of their palm oil is from RSPO sources.

We recognise that this doesn’t resolve criticisms that RSPO standards are too low, and that even on RSPO plantations, violations have been found. For this reason, we expect companies to be implementing other criteria, such as publishing lists of grievances found at supplier farms. 

How RSPO data is used in Ethical Consumer’s palm oil rating

Following the RSPO criticisms, we made our palm oil sourcing rating stricter in April 2021, making the requirements for large companies more stringent.

For large companies to score a middle rating, all palm oil and derivatives must be certified as sustainable by the RSPO - but this alone isn’t adequate. They must also list all their mills and producers, ensuring they are totally traceable, and we check that none of these are on a list of suppliers that don’t have explicit ‘No Deforestation, No Peat, No Exploitation’ policies. 

For large companies to score a best rating, they must meet the criteria for a middle rating, and also ensure that at least 50% of their palm oil comes from Segregated or Identity Preserved mechanisms. 

Large companies must also publish an annual grievance list to score a best rating. 

For more information about the RSPO visit our page 'What is the RSPO?'