Is Sustainable Palm Oil Really Sustainable?
In the short term, no.
In the long term – truly sustainable palm oil, yes.
What Is The Roundtable On Sustainable Palm Oil (Rspo): Some Background
In one of our previous articles we talked about why palm oil free is a band aid we can apply to the unsustainable expansion of the palm oil industry and the devastation it’s causing to our environment.
Back in 2004, in an effort to curb this unsustainable growth, various stakeholders in the palm oil industry (growers, producers, retailers, manufactures, traders and NGOs) formed a voluntary not-for-profit association called the “Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil” (RSPO).
The RSPO’s stated objective is to promote the growth and use of sustainable palm oil products through global standards and stakeholder engagement.
So, to achieve this, the RSPO established a set of global principles and criteria to be followed. Like transparency, compliance with local laws and regulations, environmental responsibility and conservation of natural resources.
Growers are then audited by independent bodies against these criteria and if found to be compliant they can then certify their palm oil plantations as RSPO certified, allowing them and the companies who purchase their palm oil produce to use the RSPO logo.
Currently, this is the gold-standard in sustainable palm oil.
Problem solved? Sadly, no…
For our most recent coverage on this topic please read our deep dive on whether palm oil free is still all that.
Unfortunately, there is still a long long way to go before we have a truly sustainable palm oil industry.
With that being said, many pundits have put forward various arguments for and against the use of ‘sustainable palm oil’ and RSPO certification which we’ve summarized below.
As you will see it’s a pretty controversial topic.
ARGUMENTS AGAINST “SUSTAINABLE PALM OIL” & THE RSPO
1) The production of sustainable palm oil under the RSPO is a fiction
Greenpeace published a thoroughly well-researched yet damning report into the current state of affairs. Some of the largest members of the RSPO who supposedly produce and sell ‘sustainable’ palm oil routinely flout the laws and rules which they are supposed to abide by.
The result is that large companies who claim to only use sustainable palm oil in their products are in fact selling a lie to the public.
2) Palm oil auditing firms may be corrupt
Another in-depth and hard-hitting report published by the Environmental Investigation Agency and Grassroots shows that the assessments undertaken by the auditing firms (who are tasked with ensuring members of the RSPO are not destroying primary forests) are substandard.
Not only that, but there is strong evidence which indicates that they are colluding with plantation companies to conceal violations.
The report also states that the consequences of these actions are a proliferation of the destruction of the rain forests and biodiversity, entrenched social conflicts, human trafficking and death threats against anyone who tries to defend the environment.
This is utterly depressing considering the RSPO and the auditing firms are essentially the last line of defence in the destruction of wildlife and rain forests in key areas.
Of course, this is not a novel phenomenon as major sustainable forestry certifications routinely fail to uphold and enforce their own rules and policies.
3) The RSPO has no teeth
In an article written by The Orang Utan Republik Foundation, there is clear evidence that the RSPO cannot enforce its rules or properly sanction its large corporate members. In fact, in some rather black and white cases it appears that the RSPO even chooses not to enforce its own rules and regulations.
As a result, these organisations simply use the RSPO certification as a marketing gimmick to pay lip service to the public that they’re doing something about the problem when in fact it couldn’t be further from the truth.
4) RSPO’s rules and regulations are only as robust as the most conservative and conflicted members will allow
For example, the rules state that any forest that is not “high-value conservation forest” can be removed. Not only does this sound like an astoundingly low bar…how you define “high value” is, well…open to interpretation.
5) Palm oil processing is pretty complicated
The process of palm oil extraction, processing and distribution is very complex and non-transparent.
There are four different certification categories for RSPO. Two are traceable to a single or multiple certified sustainable source: Identity Preserved and Segregated.
The third (Mass Balance) is a mix of sustainable palm oil and ordinary palm oil. In this case, a consumer can never be sure that whatever they’re buying is truly sustainable.
And the fourth category, known as Greenpalm, has no requirement for the supply chain to be monitored. The purchaser simply buys a Green Palm Certificate which is used to subsidize the certified grower and offset their continued use of conventional palm oil.
It’s easy to see why this category in particular has been labelled as ‘greenwashing’ (read what that means here).
Unfortunately, the sale of Greenpalm Certificates still accounts for the majority of the physical sales (see page 47 of the 2016 Impact Report) of certified palm oil.
6) Palm oil propogates far and wide
There are over 200 ingredients that contain palm oil. Given poor labeling, that makes it almost impossible for consumers to know what exactly it is they’re buying.
ARGUMENTS FOR SUSTAINABLE PALM OIL AND THE RSPO
1) Substituting palm oil for other vegetable oils is not ideal
According to the RSPO itself, it’s just not practical solution.
Other vegetable oils are much less efficient (they would require more land for cultivation) and as a result would create larger environmental and social problems.
2) Palm oil creates jobs
The palm oil industry provides jobs to those in producing countries which reduces poverty. Ceasing production of palm oil would create significant problems for those who are currently benefiting.
3) Palm oil is not going anywhere
At least, that’s the argument Their Turn makes.
Asia and the Middle East account for the largest chunk of palm oil consumption but the demand for sustainable palm oil and the protection of tropical rain forests is driven by the West. If the West stops consuming palm oil then companies would no longer have the incentive to purchase it from sustainable growers.
Without this incentive, the palm oil industry would essentially go back to its lawless pre-2004 and pre-RSPO state and the disappearance of our rain forests would accelerate until there is nothing left.
4) Condemning the whole palm oil industry is unrealistic
In light of the above, it’s pretty clear that the gold standard of sustainable palm oil is not as credible as its marketing may suggest. In fact, it’s really just lip service, which in the context of the drive for growth and profit is, well…not surprising.
This is no more evident than when you look at the fine print of “Unilever’s journey to 100% Sustainable Palm Oil”, which pledges (by virtue of the New York Declaration on Forests) to end forest loss by 2030.
It seems the best we can hope and plan for is sustainable palm oil.
IF CERTIFIED PALM OIL IS NOT THE SOLUTION, WHAT IS?
There’s no silver bullet here.
As far as our thoughts on the issue go, we think the best solution is to avoid palm oil AND sustainable palm oil.
We’re not saying that sustainable palm oil is not part of the solution. Indeed, it has to be simply because it is the most efficient oil seed crop. We just believe that the current concentration of demand on palm oil needs to be diluted.
It’s also not always necessary to have palm oil or similar ingredients in our products. For example, we think peanut butter tastes so much better with just a single ingredient (peanuts) than it does with palm oil, sugar, salt, etc. added.
In the short term and until truly sustainable palm oil can be absolutely guaranteed, the most effective action we can take is to choose products (cosmetics, food etc.) that do not contain any palm oil (wherever possible).
By doing this, we’re not only sending an unequivocal message that we won’t accept unethical products but we’re also giving the rain forests a bit of respite and a chance, however small that might be.
FINAL THOUGHTS ON SUSTAINABLE PALM OIL
We’ll leave you with this beautiful video from Wild Education to get a sense of what’s at stake.
We hope this has helped you shed some light on a rather complex issue.
If you have any questions, comments or other suggestions for the Sustainable Jungle Community, leave a comment or get in touch – we’d love to hear from you!