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Stan asks, "Is sustainable palm oil greenwash?"

Updated: Sep 30, 2019

Mention palm oil and, for many, images of rain forests being cut down and stories of the extinction of orangutans spring immediately to mind. But since 2004 the world has been able to buy sustainable palm oil. That one word, sustainable, gives a product legitimacy. But in the case of palm oil all is not what it seems.


Palm oil can be found extensively in our lives. Every day products like margarine, ice cream, lipstick and soap will often see palm oil, or one of the many other names it goes by, listed in the ingredients. The oil itself is derived from the fruit of oil palm trees and extracted in two forms. Crude palm oil comes from crushing the fleshy fruit and palm kernal oil comes from crushing the stone in the middle of the fruit. Both produce high yields of oil. With a high yielding crop and a worldwide demand for the oil itself, it is easy to see the commercial attraction.


However, the world is becoming increasingly aware of the environmental impact of palm oil. Where claims as to any products sustainability are made, there is a need to scrutinise. We should not accept a trademark or label because it looks official or pretty. With palm oil, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil or RSPO offers an accreditation meaning producers and product manufacturers can call their palm oil sustainable and use the RSPO trademark on their packaging.


The issue here is that for many purchasing products that contain palm oil, the word “sustainable” along with the RSPO logo on the packaging shouts environmentally friendly. But how many people reading this have heard of the RSPO? How many more think the RSPO is an independent, international government backed body that can be trusted?


The RSPO was formed in 2004. From the RSPO’s own web site it clearly states, “To ensure the credibility of palm oil sustainability claims, all RSPO members that take legal ownership and produce or handle RSPO-certified sustainable oil palm products need to be RSPO certified.” And here the questions start. The language used here positions the RSPO as a governing body that offers an independent set of rules by which those involved must comply. Reaching these standards means a sustainability trademark can be used which the rest of the world can trust.


Often, a good starting point when examining an organisation is to look at the executive management. After all, leadership comes from the top. The RSPO has sixteen governors who oversee the organisation. Again from their own web site, RSPO are proud to have a diverse group of representatives from all areas of the palm oil industry. Crucially only two of the sixteen are Environmental/Nature conservation NGOs. Twelve of the remaining fourteen places are taken up by oil palm growers, palm oil processors and/or traders, consumer goods manufacturers, retailers and banks/investors. Yes, the RSPO trademark that states sustainability and implies an eco-friendly approach is partially governed by bankers and investors who finance the industry. The alarm bells should of started ringing now!


On reading this some will say, it is good to have the involvement of all sectors of the palm oil industry to ensure the broadest set of views can be heard before policy is made. A sensible choice. In theory, yes. However the track record of an organisations ability to govern the industry it is so clearly invested in reveals some interesting stuff.


Firstly, today the RSPO covers 19% of all worldwide palm oil production. For an organisation that has been in existence since 2004, how is it only 19%? Surely, a governing body covers an industry not less than one fifth of it? What have they been doing for the last fifteen years? Who is governing the remaining 81% and what visible steps have the RSPO taken to ensure a more responsible approach within the palm oil industry is being taken? Where is the outcry from the RSPO as to de-forestation of huge areas of our natural world? The questions could go on.


Secondly, in 2018 the RSPO changed its sustainable certification. This change meant new land area needed to grow could not be created using de-forestation. To their credit this the previous certification standards excluded the clearing of primary forests but did allow clearing of secondary forests and peat forests which are less than three metres deep. For the first fourteen years of its existence, the RSPO overlooked the benefits of wood and peat forests to wildlife, for carbon storage as well as the impact on the lives of indigenous populations. Doesn’t this feel a little pound before planet?


Thirdly, what prompted this tightening of these standards. Was it a sudden realisation of the impact the palm oil industry was having on the environment? Or was it pressure from 90 institutional investors, managing over $6 trillion dollars in assets, calling on the RSPO to ban deforestation outright coupled with the growing consumer awareness of the negative impacts of converting tropical rainforests through deforestation for the purpose of harvesting palm oil? The better question is did the RSPO see this pressure as a PR problem that needed fixing to protect its sustainable brand?


Finally, what happens if a member of the RSPO infringes its rules? The Sustainability Policy Transparency Toolkit or SPOTT is a free, online platform supporting sustainable commodity production and trade. By tracking transparency, SPOTT incentivises the implementation of corporate best practice. It is an initiative formed and managed by the Zoological Society of London. In 2018, their report on the palm oil industry made for worrying reading. Despite showing year on year improvements in many areas, it is clear the industry is falling short of the standards that would justify their “sustainable” branding.


I will leave you with this thought. One key reason why the palm oil industry finds itself with these questions is the demand the product has or put another way, overconsumption. So it is right to state that switching to alternatives may lead down the same path if equivalent levels of consumption are subsequently found. We need to reduce our consumption!


Today I am proud to be working for a soap bar company that does not use and never will use palm oil. It monitors the impact of the materials it does use and will seek alternatives should an ingredient become of grave concern. So when you are buying your soap and the manufacturer or retailer reassures you sustainable palm oil is being used, you may have a few questions for them!


SQUAWK


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