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What is the RSPO?

What is sustainable palm oil? Is the RSPO really sustainable? We answer your questions on the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil 

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 4000+ 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) 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 Book and Claim 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  – 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 2018 the RSPO terminated the membership of 4 companies, and suspended 55 more, for repeated 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.

According to Tomasz Johnson of the Environmental Investigation Agency: “The credibility or efficacy of the RSPO is entirely reliant on 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.

Going beyond existing RSPO standards

Many people think the RSPO doesn't go far enough and there are lots of organisations pressuring them to go further.

The Forest Trust and Greenpeace developed the High Carbon Stock (HCS) approach. HCS identifies forest that should be protected for its biomass and biodiversity, while RSPO standards so far 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 standards on a range of environmental, social, supply chain and governance issues. You can read more about their responses to the latest RSPO review below.

Campaigns and investigations from the Rainforest Action Network and Greenpeace continue to push for changes and raise public awareness.

Recent developments at the RSPO

In November 2018 the RSPO held its 16th Annual Roundtable Conference, in Malaysia. It was framed around the recent review of the RSPO Principles and Criteria (P&C), which aim to go further in halting deforestation, protecting peatlands, and strengthening human and labour rights.

The High Carbon Stock Approach is to be included in the revised standards, as well as no new plantings on peatland. However, Greenpeace Indonesia says, “the new rules will take at least two years to come into effect and right now numerous RSPO members are destroying rainforests with impunity. RSPO must address this immediately if it is to make a real difference on the ground”.

POIG says it also welcomes in particular that there are clearer safeguards for workers, including more rigorous requirements addressing child labour and forced labour, improved Free, Prior and Informed Consent procedures and measures to enhance local food security.

But it also states that there are still weaknesses related to:

  • allowing the use of highly toxic, bio-accumulative and persistent pesticides;
  • not prohibiting Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs);
  • working hours and overtime, precarious labour, living wages

POIG calls on the RSPO to urgently strengthen its auditing systems and processes so its claims of “certified sustainable palm oil” can be trusted by consumers across the globe.”

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