Principles & Criteria Certification FAQs

  • Palm oil is an edible vegetable oil produced from the fruits of oil palms. Oil palms can grow 20 meters tall with leaves of up to 5 meters long. They bear clusters of fruit all year long, with each fully matured cluster weighing up to 50 kilograms. The fruits contain about 50 percent oil. Oil palms are highly efficient oil producers, requiring ten percent or less of the land that is required to grow other oilproducing crops.
  • Palm oil is among the world’s most used ingredients. It is currently being applied in about half of all packaged food products, often in combination with other vegetable oils. Because of its distinct properties, it can be applied in a wide range of food products such as margarine, chocolate, ice cream, and cookies. Palm oil derivatives are also used in soaps and cosmetics. More recently, palm oil has also been used to make fuels for transportation and power plants.
  • Oil palms are cultivated on both large-scale plantations and small-scale family farms. Palm oil is pressed from palm fruits that grow from oil palms in heavy bunches. Bunches are cut to harvest monthly and year-round, transported to palm oil mills and crushed for oil.

    Oil palms only grow in the tropics. Indonesia and Malaysia, the world’s primary exporters, together produce about 85 percent of the world’s palm oil. In most palm oil-producing countries, including Nigeria, Thailand, Colombia, Ecuador, Papua New Guinea, Ivory Coast and Brazil, palm oil trade has the potential to contribute significantly to economic growth and poverty reduction. In Indonesia and Malaysia together, 4.5 million people earn a living from palm oil.

    World palm oil production has grown steadily in recent years. Last year, palm oil accounted for one third of the 130 million tonnes of vegetable oil produced worldwide. Palm oil has recently surpassed soy oil as the world’s most popular vegetable oil.
  • About one quarter of global palm oil production is used in the country where the palms grow; three quarters is exported. Asia, the European Union and Africa are the world’s main importers of palm oil. Within Asia, China and India are major importers. Of the more than 30 million tonnes of palm oil that are exported each year, more than half goes to Asia. About 15 percent is exported to the European Union, a bit less ends up in Africa.
  • About 20 percent of oil palms are grown by smallholders, the remainder by private or government owned plantations. Indonesia is home to about 3 million smallholders, Malaysia has about 150,000.
  • The Roundtable has defined 8 principles and 39 practical criteria to define sustainable production of palm oil. They ensure that fundamental rights of previous land owners, local communities, plantation workers, small farmers and their families are respected and fully taken into account, that no new primary forests or high conservation value areas have been cleared for palm oil production since November 2005, and that mills and plantation owners minimize their environmental footprint. A full listing of principles, criteria and indicators is given in the RSPO document Principles and Criteria for Sustainable Palm Oil available at the Roundtable’s website (www.rspo.org) under ‘Key documents’.
  • Oil palms only grow in the tropics, where their cultivation can have negative side effects for local populations or the environment.

    Among the social side effects of growing oil palm cultivation have been displacements of communities that used to farm or live in the area and whose legal or customary rights to the land became sources for dispute. Also, there have been reports of plantations that violated the rights of workers, including those to fair payment, safe working conditions or the freedom to unionize.

    Expansion of oil palm plantations has led in some cases to the cultivation of land previously covered with peat-swamp forests, primary forests or other high conservation value areas. Such areas, already under pressure from other factors such as commercial logging, are often highly valued for their biodiversity and their capacity to sequester carbon dioxide. Forest parcels are sometimes cleared by fires, which can burn out of control.

    Sustainable palm oil is produced without these negative social and environmental side effects.
  • Switching from palm oil to other vegetable oils may seem like an easy solution, but it really is not. Demand would shift to other vegetable oils, increasing the sustainability problems connected to those particular crops. What’s more, compared to other crops like soy bean, sunflower or rapeseed, oil palms produce by far the most vegetable oil per hectare of land, so switching to other vegetable oils may very well result in more primary forests being converted into agricultural land, not less. So for sustainability reasons, it is better to switch to sustainable palm oil than to other vegetable oils.
  • The environmental criteria for plantations are directed at preventing further loss to primary forests or other high conservation value areas, reducing negative impacts on soil, habitats of endangered species and overall biodiversity, and development of water and energy-efficient production methods.
  • Palm oil production employs and supports millions of plantation workers, small farmers and their families. The social criteria for plantations are directed at strengthening local poor people’s livelihoods by preventing conflicts about the rights to use land, providing income security to workers, small oil palm farmers and their families, protecting health and living environments, ensuring human and labor rights, and supporting legal compliance.
  • The RSPO Principles and Criteria were drafted through an open and intensive dialogue between oil palm growers, palm oil processors and traders, consumer goods manufacturers, retailers, banks/investors, environmental/nature conservation NGOs and social/developmental NGOs. Also, public consultation rounds were held to gain additional input.
  • No, that is incorrect. The RSPO Principles, Criteria and Indicators extend far beyond just conserving primary rainforest. They require a comprehensive, independent social and environmental impact assessment, which includes soil types and other high conservation values important for biodiversity. So-called National Interpretation Working Groups have specified local types of growth and soils that must be avoided by new plantings.
  • It is widely assumed that oil palm’s genetic potential will enable further increases in productivity. By applying good agricultural practices, as recommended in the RSPO Principles and Criteria, many growers should be able to significantly increase average yields per hectare. That means that, even without further clearing of primary forests, peat lands or other high conservation value areas, world production of palm oil will be able to see continued growth.
  • RSPO’s certification systems are limited to the production of palm oil and to its subsequent supply chain. They do not address potential sustainability issues of specific applications of palm oil.
  • The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) is a multi-stakeholder initiative dedicated to promoting sustainable production of palm oil worldwide. RSPO’s more than 400 members include palm growers, oil processors, traders, consumer goods manufacturers, retailers, investors and social and environmental NGOs. Through co-operation and open dialogue, they work to put on the market certified palm oil that is produced in a sustainable way, and to maximize the amount of palm oil that can be RSPO-certified.
  • The Roundtable aims to ensure that no primary forests or other high conservation value areas are cleared for new palm oil plantations, that oil palm plantations minimize their environmental footprint and that basic rights of local land owners, farm workers and indigenous people are fully respected. About 40 million tonnes of palm oil is produced worldwide. Roundtable members currently represent about half of that volume, so the RSPO’s efforts can potentially have a major impact. While in due course the RSPO aims to see all palm oil certified, sustainable palm oil will initially make up less than 10 percent of total palm oil volumes. Over the next few years, that percentage should grow significantly. Ultimately, the Roundtable aims to have all the world’s palm oil produced in a sustainable way.
  • The journey of RSPO started in 2003 as an informal co-operation among Aarhus United UK Ltd, WWF, Golden Hope Plantations Berhad, Migros, the Malaysian Palm Oil Association, Sainsbury’s and Unilever. In 2004, RSPO was legally registered in Switzerland as a non profit organization and set up offices in Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia) and Jakarta (Indonesia).
  • The Roundtable has developed a Code of Conduct for all of its members.

    The Roundtable has agreed on Principles and Criteria that define sustainable palm oil production. They include standards for palm oil plantations on dealing fairly with employees and impacted communities, conserving natural resources and biodiversity, and developing new plantings responsibly.

    The Roundtable has approved independent, well-established certification bodies, which audit palm oil mills and plantations and provide certificates to those that meet the RSPO’s Criteria.

    To meet the needs of many end-users, the Roundtable has defined four ways for companies to purchase certified sustainable palm oil. All four supply chain systems are designed in such a way as to assure oil processors and consumers that the sustainable palm oil they buy indeed corresponds with oil that is produced in a sustainable way.

    Dozens of sustainable oil palm plantations in Malaysia, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea have already been certified, and more plantations and mills are under review. By early 2010, more than 1.5 million tonnes of certified sustainable palm oil (CSPO) had been produced, and more than 450 thousand of those had been sold under an RSPO scheme.

    The Roundtable has issued strict communication and marketing guidelines for consumer good manufacturers and retail companies to make sure that consumers receive accurate and transparent information on the way products contain or merely support sustainable palm oil.
  • RSPO’s formal seat is in Zurich, Switzerland. The RSPO Secretariat and the Secretary-General are currently based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Communication not targeted at Asia is currently coordinated from an office in Brussels, Belgium.
  • Members of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil subscribe to its mission and principles and adherence to its Code of Conduct. Among the principles are commitment to transparency, environmental responsibility and conservation of natural resources and biodiversity, responsible consideration of employees, smallholders and of other individuals and communities affected by growers and mills, and responsible development of new plantings. The RSPO Code of Conduct requires that all members work proactively towards the production and promotion of sustainable palm oil. Breaching the Code of Conduct can ultimately result in cancellation of membership.
  • Members or non-members may submit formal complaints against actions of specific RSPO members to the RSPO’s Grievance Panel. The Grievance Panel does not usually pass judgment but offers mediation and practical recommendations to all parties involved. In serious cases, however, the Grievance Panel may ultimately require a member to take specific actions or face cancellation of its RSPO membership.
  • RSPO promotes sustainable ways to grow oil palm and produce palm oil. The various ways in which sustainable palm oil can be applied by end-users are not part of the RSPO’s mandate.
  • RSPO promotes sustainable ways to grow oil palm and produce palm oil. RSPO does not address potential indirect effects of palm oil production on the cultivation of other crops.
  • The RSPO is managed by an Executive Board comprising of 16 members. They are elected by a General Assembly for two-year terms. Executive Board seats are allocated as follows: oil palm growers (4), palm oil processors and/or traders (2), consumer goods manufacturers (2), retailers (2), banks / investors (2), environmental / nature conservation NGOs (2) and social/developmental NGOs (2). RSPO’s Secretary-General is responsible for operational management and the RSPO Secretariat.
  • RSPO has Ordinary Members in 7 categories (i.e. oil palm growers, palm oil processors and/or traders, consumer goods manufacturers, retailers, banks/investors, environmental/nature conservation NGOs and social/developmental NGOs). New Ordinary Members have to belong to one of these sectors. RSPO also has Affiliate Members. Affiliate Membership is open to organizations and individuals who do not belong to any of the seven ordinary membership categories and want to support RSPO’s objectives and activities. Current affiliate members include donors, academics, research organizations, professional associations, and government agencies. The RSPO Secretariat receives membership inquiries or applications.
  • RSPO’s sees government agencies and research organizations as important stakeholders. However, the Roundtable was set up as a voluntary organization of primary players in the palm oil supply chain. Just like ordinary members, affiliate members are able to contribute to the RSPO’s work.
  • The RSPO is not a government body, but many governments agree with the RSPO's efforts. Government ministers from palm oil producing countries have addressed Roundtable meetings and governments from various European countries have spoken out in support of the RSPO. The RSPO will work together with governments where and whenever such cooperation could help promote the growth and use of sustainable palm oil.
  • An organization with more than one plantation can only be certified if:
    • it is a member of the RSPO, and
    • it presents a robust, time-bound plan to certify all of its remaining units at the time of their first certification audit, and
    • there are no significant land conflicts or labor disputes that are not being resolved through an agreed process, and
    • there have been no replacements of primary forests or other high-conservation value areas since November 2005, and
    • there is no evidence of non-compliance with the law in any of the non-certified holdings.
  • The RSPO has approved third-party certification bodies, a listing of which is posted on the RSPO website. The certification bodies issue certificates to audited organizations that comply with the RSPO Principles and Criteria, which are available at the RSPO’s website.
  • A certificate is valid for five years, during which maintenance audits are held every year. Problems shall be brought to the attention of the certification body or to the RSPO.
  • Membership of the RSPO demonstrates that a company intends to become sustainable over the coming years. It does not yet mean that (all of) its plantations have already achieved that goal. For assurances about sustainably operating plantations, the thing to look for is RSPO-certification. Only RSPO-certified plantations have been established to comply with RSPO’s sustainability criteria. Some palm oil producing companies have signed on as members of the RSPO but did not yet get their plantations modified, audited and/or certified. As members they have pledged to do so, but it is a thorough and time-consuming process. Thus, RSPO membership in itself does not mean that a company's plantations operate sustainably and produce sustainable palm oil today. During the transition to large-scale sustainable palm oil production, some RSPO producer members may at some point want to certify some of their plantations while others are not yet fully sustainable. This may happen, for example, when a responsible company recently acquired plantations from a company that was highly unsustainable. In principle, this is change for the good. RSPO rules in such situations are strict (although some might want to go even further): when even one plantation of a company is to be certified, the company must have robust plans to also have all of its other plantations certified within a few years.

    It is important to also bear in mind that a company’s RSPO-certified sustainable palm oil can ONLY come from plantations that are indeed certified!
  • For a limited time, they can: a company does not have to certify all of its plantations at once. When the first plantation is certified, however, robust plans to certify all of its remaining plantations within a few years must be present. Do note, however, that only oil from the certified plantations can be sold as RSPO-certified sustainable palm oil!
  • To have an oil mill and its suppliers certified, a palm oil producer must show a plan that ensures that all smallholders who supply fruit bunches to the mill meet RSPO standards within 3 years. The RSPO Smallholder task force has developed specific RSPO standards for smallholders whose plantations are associated with mills.

    Dedicated standards for independent smallholder groups are currently being developed, just as procedures and ways to help independent smallholders pay for audits by certifying bodies.
  • The RSPO Smallholder task force promotes the interests of smallholder within the RSPO. The task force also raises awareness for sustainability issues among smallholders, and is developing adaptations to the RSPO standards and procedures tailored to smallholders, including a group-certification protocol.
  • The Roundtable has set up two certification systems: one to ensure that palm oil is produced sustainably; and one to ensure the integrity of the trade in sustainable palm oil, i.e. that palm oil sold as sustainable indeed corresponds with oil produced at certified plantations. Both systems involve third-party certification bodies. Thanks to such rigorous certification systems, oil processors and consumers can be sure that their products indeed contain or support sustainable palm oil.
  • Certification of sustainable palm oil production is handled through the palm oil mill and its supply base. For a mill to be certified, its supply of oil palm fruits must also be certified. The certification includes plantations (‘estates’) managed by the mill and estates managed by other suppliers, including smallholders. To have its oil mill certified, a palm oil producer must show a plan to have 100 percent of its associated smallholders meet RSPO standards within 3 years.
  • Oil mills and their supply base hire an RSPO-approved certification body to set up audits testing their compliance with the RSPO Principles and Criteria (including accompanying indicators and limited adaptations for National Interpretations which are approved by the RSPO). Criteria and Principles involve good agricultural practices, fair treatment of workers and communities, proper acquisition of land and care for the environment and biodiversity.
  • The certification assessment procedure includes documentation review, field checks and interviews with external stakeholders (statutory bodies, indigenous peoples, local communities, workers’ organizations, smallholders and national NGOs) to ensure that all relevant issues concerning compliance with the RSPO Criteria and Principles are identified and assessed. If a certificate of conformance is issued, a public summary is included that outlines the main findings of the certification assessment, including non-compliances identified or issues that were raised by stakeholders. Public summaries are published on the RSPO’s website.
  • Costs are agreed between a mill and the certification body. The RSPO has approved third-party certification bodies, the names of which are listed on the RSPO website. Certification bodies can engage in competitive bidding.
  • Yes, several smallholders will be able to organize and apply for group certification.
  • The RSPO has set up four supply chain certification systems to verify the integrity of trade in RSPOcertified sustainable palm oil. These systems ensure that all parties in the supply chain comply with requirements and that claims of end-users are accurate.
  • Processors or users of RSPO-certified sustainable palm oil can claim the use or support of sustainable palm oil when they adhere to the requirements of the relevant RSPO supply chain system. Each of the four supply chain systems carries its own requirements. Companies selling physical RSPO-certified palm oil to other parties in the supply chain must enter their transactions in the RSPO Supply Chain database hosted by UTZ Certified. The database enables the tracing of volumes of certified palm oil and facilitates input/output calculations by the RSPO.
  • In order to speed up the introduction of sustainable palm oil on the market, the RSPO has adopted an interim procedure to verify the supply chain. For a limited time, parties in the supply chain, such as shippers and processors, may provide self-assessments on their compliance with the requirements. After that initial period, third-party certification bodies will have to verify such compliance. For more information, please see the RSPO Supply Chain Certification Systems document that is available at RSPO’s website under ‘Key documents’.
  • The first sustainable oil palm plantations were certified in the summer of 2008. The first shipment of RSPO-certified sustainable palm oil arrived in Europe in November of that same year. By early 2010, more than 1.5 million tonnes of certified sustainable palm oil (CSPO) had been produced, and more than 450 thousand of those had been sold under an RSPO scheme. Up-to-date market figures are available through RSPO’s online Market center (www.rspo.eu/market).
  • A limited number of products containing sustainable palm oil, or products advancing the production of sustainable palm oil through the purchase of sustainability certificates, are available on the market. They include products such as biscuits, chocolate, candles and detergents. It will take some more time before sustainable palm oil can be found in a great many consumer goods.
  • Since in most products palm oil is just one small ingredient, producers may opt to not use packaging to claim the use of sustainable palm oil. Instead, they may use websites or brochures to inform customers about the level of their involvement with sustainable palm oil. The RSPO has formulated specific Guidelines on Communication & Claims for on-pack communication, product communication and corporate communication. These guidelines are available through RSPO’s online Market center (www.rspo.eu/market).
  • Only if palm oil in a product can be verifiably traced back to RSPO-certified mills and plantations by keeping it segregated throughout the supply chain, producers may say that their product ‘contains RSPO-certified sustainable palm oil’.
  • If a product carries such a claim, it means that enough palm oil needed to make the product was produced sustainably; however, the sustainable oil itself may have ended up in a product not carrying a claim. Put otherwise: purchase of this product did indeed advance the production of sustainable palm oil, but for practical or economical reasons, the sustainable oil itself may have ended up elsewhere.

    While this may sound strange at first, using such a system often makes perfect practical, economical and sustainable sense.

    Palm oil has a long and complex supply chain, which spans multiple traders, storage tanks, pipelines and oil tankers across several continents. Batches of oil are added together all the time. In some cases it would be too difficult, or too costly, to keep sustainable oil fully segregated throughout that long chain. Without another option, some product manufacturers might decide to forgo sustainable palm oil.

    To enable all companies to join, the RSPO created certification systems that make it possible to buy a particular batch of sustainable palm oil at the end of the chain even though the sustainable oil itself was mixed in with conventional oil earlier in the chain. The certification systems ensure that every tonne of sustainably produced palm oil is accounted for.
  • The RSPO has created two certification systems that make it possible to pay for a particular volume of sustainably produced palm oil at the end of the long supply chain even if the sustainable oil itself was mixed in with conventional oil in tankers or storage tanks earlier in the chain.

    One system (‘Mass Balance’) involves registering carefully where, when and how much sustainable oil merges into the conventional stream. From there on, all trades involving (some) sustainable palm oil are registered in UTZ Certified’s online Traceability System. A matching amount of palm oil can then be purchased at the end of the chain, even though by then the oil itself contains a mix of sustainable and conventional oil. For more information on the Mass Balance system, please visit www.utzcertified.org.

    The second system (‘Book & Claim’), operated by GreenPalm, uses a similar approach by enabling producers and end-users to trade certificates. RSPO-certified producers can register their volume of sustainable palm oil on GreenPalm’s website. They are issued one certificate for every tonne of sustainable oil they produced. Product manufacturers or retailers can then go online and purchase these certificates. In effect, they offset their use of conventional palm products by paying producers for equivalent amounts that are produced sustainably. The system does not add costs to the physical supply chain, so almost the entire price premium goes to producers. For more information about the Book & Claim system, please visit www.greenpalm.org.

    In both these two systems, volumes of oil are carefully matched between producers and buyers. However, manufacturers or retailers cannot claim their products ‘contain’ sustainable palm oil, since sustainable oil was mixed with conventional oil earlier on. Instead, they may say their products have ‘advanced’ the production of sustainable palm oil.
  • A manufacturer can only make such a claim if the palm oil used in the product came from a certified plantation and was kept ‘segregated’ from conventional oil throughout the supply chain. All segregated batches of sustainable palm oil are registered and followed using a global database maintained by UZT Certified. Through their database, consumer good manufacturers can trace segregated oil all the way back to one or more RSPO-certified plantation(s). For more information about Utz Certified, please visit their website at www.utzcertified.org.
  • If 95% or more of the palm oil used was RSPO-certified, companies may claim a product contains only sustainable palm oil. If the percentage is less, then it has to be specified. For example, if half of the palm oil in a product was RSPO-certified, then a claim on the packaging should be accompanied by the words ‘(equivalent to 50% of the palm oil utilized)’.
  • No, the RSPO logo is protected by copyrights. Only RSPO members who fulfill the requirements can use the RSPO logo for their on-pack, about-product or corporate communications. Image files for web or print applications can be obtained from the RSPO Secretariat or the EU communications office (communications@rspo.eu).
  • At present, more than 400 member organizations subscribe to the Roundtable’s principles and criteria. Together, they currently represent about half of the palm oil that is traded worldwide. The RSPO expects that many companies (buyers as well as suppliers) will join a trend towards sustainable palm oil.
  • The number of certified plantations is growing, and so are sales of sustainable palm oil. Current members of the RSPO together represent almost half of the world’s volume of palm oil, and membership is growing as well. The Roundtable believes that ultimately the world’s palm oil can be produced in a sustainable way.
  • China and India are among the world's biggest importers of palm oil. At the same time, they export palm oil-containing products to Europe. Such international trade flows will likely increase demand for sustainable palm oil in China and India. One large China-based importer of palm oil is already a member of the RSPO. We cannot be sure, but the Roundtable ultimately aims to have all the world’s palm oil produced in a sustainable way.
  • Palm oil production does not have to displace primary forest or other high conservation value areas. In palm oil producing countries, large areas currently lie fallow. What’s more, yields per hectare can be increased significantly by applying agricultural practices recommended by the RSPO.
  • Generally speaking, markets will determine the price of sustainable palm oil. A price premium on sustainable oil can be expected when demand exceeds supply. Also, palm oil plantations, mills and/or traders will likely try to recover expenses such as those for auditing and certification, segregation, administration and RSPO membership.

    Small fees are added by organizations running the system, including the RSPO. In the end, sustainable palm oil will probably be a bit more expensive than conventional palm oil. Paying a little price premium is an effective way for consumers to encourage large plantations and smallholders to produce palm oil sustainably.