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The case for sustainable palm oil

palm oil

Palm oil has been associated with deforestation, unsustainable practices and violation of workers’ rights. Fay Richards, Communications Manager of RSPO Europe, describes the actions taken by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil to address these problems and improve the sustainability of palm oil production.

Palm oil cultivation

Originating in West Africa, the oil palm crop is commercially cultivated today on a large-scale across Asia and increasingly in Latin America and Africa – growing most successfully in tropical regions close to the equator.

The global popularity of palm oil and its versatility has helped drive a rapid expansion of oil palm plantations, predominantly in Malaysia and Indonesia. It is extracted from the flesh of the fruit of the oil palm and also when the kernel of the fruit is crushed. Palm (kernel) oil is a favourable ingredient for food production as it maintains its properties at high temperatures, has a smooth and creamy texture and possesses no distinct smell. Palm oil also has a natural preservative effect, which extends the shelf life of food products. The oil is also widely used by the home and personal care sectors. Approximately 2% of the world’s palm oil and palm kernel oil is used in cosmetics, while 3% is used in home care. As an ingredient in many of the products on supermarket shelves, from margarine and chocolate to ice cream, soaps, cosmetics, and even as a biofuel for cars and power plants, it is easy to see why there has been such largescale market demand for the oil. Palm oil is the most consumed vegetable oil globally and also the highest-yielding vegetable oil crop, needing less than half the land required by other crops to produce the same amount of oil. This makes it very efficient and the least expensive vegetable oil in the world.

Yet in some regions, oil palm cultivation has caused and continues to cause deforestation. Land, which was once predominantly covered by primary forest (forest untouched by man) or which housed protected species and a high biodiversity, has been cleared in order to be converted into palm oil plantations. Likewise, some palm oil plantations have been developed without consulting local communities. Some have even been responsible for forcibly displacing people from their land. Violations of workers’ rights to fair payment and safe working conditions, and other malpractices have also occurred. While the oil palm crop in itself is not unsustainable, production practices have exacerbated or created the environmental and social concerns that have become apparent in the last few decades.

Palm oil is the most consumed vegetable oil globally and also the highest-yielding vegetable oil crop, needing less than half the land required by other crops to produce the same amount of oil.

Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil

In 2004, in an effort to combat these challenges, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was established to promote the sustainable production of palm oil. RSPO certified oil palm growers are audited by an independent, accredited certification body that verifies that production processes adhere to the RSPO Principles and Criteria (P&C), a robust set of stringent social and environmental guidelines that they must follow. As a non-profit, international membership organisation, RSPO unites approximately 4,000 stakeholders from 92 countries representing all sectors of the palm oil industry – producers, processors, traders, consumer goods manufacturers, retailers, banks, investors, environmental and social non-governmental organisations and civil society organisations. By bringing stakeholders together to seek solutions to the challenges of the palm oil sector, RSPO has created a platform to transform how palm oil is produced, traded and sold. Membership has more than doubled in the last five years and today, approximately 19% of all palm oil produced globally is certified to RSPO standards. The result of this gradual transition is an increasing amount of palm oil in our products that has been produced and sourced in a sustainable manner. Despite widely-reported malpractices in the palm oil industry, a growing number of players have committed to adopting more sustainable practices and have joined RSPO to help achieve our common mission to make sustainable palm oil the norm.

Some of the negative environmental impacts of palm oil cultivation, such as deforestation and social issues, are well documented and a cause of concern for many consumers, particularly in the UK. For these consumers, it is imperative that action is taken to ensure that the industry operates responsibly, so that all palm oil is sourced sustainably. When grown sustainably, and to RSPO standards, oil palm plantations and the environment can coexist – ensuring that forests with high conservation value (HCV), including the habitats of wildlife, are not harmed.

Replacing palm oil

Palm oil workers 

Avoiding or boycotting palm oil is not a sustainable solution and could in fact make matters much worse. Although using other vegetable oils might seem like a practical solution, it would actually create similar – if not even larger – environmental and social problems in different production areas. There is a misconception that sustainability concerns can be addressed when companies simply stop using palm oil in their products. This would have several grave repercussions on land, society and industry.

Replacing palm oil with other types of vegetable oil (such as sunflower, soybean or rapeseed oil) would mean that much larger amounts of land would need to be used, since oil palms produce 4-10 times more oil than other crops per unit of cultivated land. This would result in serious environmental damage, with the risk that more forests would need to be converted into agricultural land.

Millions of farmers and their families in producing countries work in the palm oil sector and palm oil plays an important role in the reduction of poverty in these areas. In Indonesia and Malaysia, a total of 4.5m people earn their living from palm oil production. Stopping the production of palm oil altogether would create significant problems for these people who support their families by working in this industry. Moreover, replacing palm oil with other types of oil is not always feasible due to palm oil’s unique properties as a food ingredient. Using other oils would not give the products the same texture and taste that palm oil offers. If Europe moves away from palm oil, there will be less incentive for producing countries to use sustainable practices and instead focus will shift to exporting unsustainable palm oil to less demanding markets, such as India and China, or to local consumption. Therefore, the best solution for tackling sustainability is for manufacturers and consumers to request and buy products that contain certified sustainable palm oil.

For real transformation to take place, the global market needs to become more inclusive, as well as more competitive, innovative, transparent and resilient. RSPO sees a future where it is standard practice to realise benefits for all palm oil stakeholders by improving conservation, reducing poverty, supporting sustainable livelihoods, valuing community participation, and ensuring fair labour practices and the economic viability of businesses.

Sustainability College

In 2018, RSPO also launched its Sustainability College – an engaging and easy-to-use platform offering stakeholders fun, educational content about sustainable palm oil. The Sustainability College includes video content, an interactive leader board, and quizzes on topics like Free Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC), Certification, Remediation and Compensation Procedures (RaCP) and more. The platform aims to educate and inform our seven stakeholder groups about sustainable palm oil related topics in a unique and interactive way. It launched with six courses: FPIC, RaCP, the Role of Certification, Best Management Practices (BMPs) for Existing Oil Palm Cultivation on Peat, New Planting Procedures (NPP), and Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Emissions – the range of courses on key topics continues to grow.


The RSPO 2018 Impact Report identified an area of more than 263,000 hectares of High Conservation Value (HCV) land, equivalent to almost 350,000 football fields, that has been set aside and managed by RSPO members – a 39% increase from the previous reporting year. Other noteworthy trends included strong progress from emerging markets, such as Latin America and Africa, where the growth in HCV area set aside by RSPO members increased by 83% (66,229 hectares) and 132% (18,043 hectares) respectively. In terms of total certified area, RSPO members covered 3.2m hectares as at 30 June 2018, representing an annual certified production volume of 13.6m tonnes of Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO). Significant gains were also made in Africa, where RSPO certified area increased by 94% and in Latin America with an increase of 15%. A reduction of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions measured through GHG assessment submissions received since 2015 was also reported.

Perhaps the most significant achievement of 2018 for members and stakeholders was the revision and adoption of RSPO’s certification standard, the Principles and Criteria (P&C). Reviewed every five years in line with ISEAL best practices, this latest review sought to align the P&C with the Theory of Change, a definitive roadmap, launched in 2017, to making sustainable palm oil the norm. During the 18-month process, some key areas were identified for improvement. These included new criteria on: no deforestation, peatland protection and conservation, reinforced protection of human rights and labour rights, and the prevention of exploitation. Furthermore, the review process pinpointed the need to simplify the certification approach for smallholders. This resulted in the current development of a new standard for smallholders, including exploring a continuous improvement approach for compliance over a period of time.


In Malaysia and Indonesia alone, smallholder production represents approximately 40% of the total oil palm plantation area, yet they tend to suffer from lower yields and other challenges. For sustainable palm oil to become the norm, solutions must be workable and profitable at every link and every level of the supply chain. RSPO certified smallholders have increased yields and greater access to international markets, which highlights why supporting these farmers to transition towards sustainable production is a top priority. Additionally, when certification and the implementation of responsible practices are made accessible and workable for smallholders, they have the potential to significantly reduce the negative impacts of palm oil cultivation on the environment. Through RSPO Best Management Practices, certified smallholders are now reducing or eliminating the use of harmful pesticides and chemicals and replacing them with more ecologically sound alternatives. Farming communities learn the importance of protecting their natural resources, and they acquire the tools and resources to do so through the collaboration with industry, NGOs and the wider RSPO network. Currently, 105,441 smallholders who cultivate 365,051 hectares of oil palm (RSPO Market Data, August 2018) are RSPO certified.

RSPO is focusing increasingly on mechanisms to support smallholders through a variety of different approaches. The Smallholder Strategy was developed in 2017 to shift the status quo in the farmers’ favour. Underpinned by a broader philosophy of smallholder inclusivity, the overall goal of the strategy is to secure measurable impacts by ensuring that smallholders are able to achieve a sustainable livelihood through their inclusion in a sustainable palm oil supply chain. This will be achieved by working towards three core objectives: support for smallholders in improving their livelihood, simplifying the certification approach and widening their access to the global market. To promote smallholder inclusion, the development of a new Smallholder Standard will present a lower burden for entry into the RSPO system and a simpler and phased process for reaching and verifying compliance.

Without increasing awareness, pressure and demand for sustainable palm oil in developed countries, the likely outcome is more unsustainable palm oil.

Challenges for the future

RSPO continues to face a range of challenges. Stakeholders are raising questions that require stronger leadership on issues such as deforestation and human rights. Moreover, there is a need for increased government engagement in key producing countries, as well as a better balance between supply and market incentives to encourage the uptake of certified sustainable palm oil. This is particularly the case in Asian consumer markets. In addition, the credibility of certification is being questioned and new verification methods are required to supplement the current certification model. A number of competing solutions have emerged as a result, including alternative certifications and both buyers and governments are increasingly challenging the relevance of RSPO.

‘Business as usual’ is no longer a viable approach if RSPO is to remain relevant. For real transformation to take place, the palm oil market needs to become more inclusive, competitive, innovative, transparent and resilient. Without increasing awareness, pressure and demand for sustainable palm oil in developed countries, the likely outcome is more unsustainable palm oil.

The RSPO is calling on European industries and stakeholders to move towards 100% certified sustainable palm oil by 2020 and to use the RSPO Trademark on products as a simple way to provide assurance to consumers that the palm oil the product they are buying is from sustainable sources.

Fay Richards, Communications Manager Europe, Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil



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