Adam Harrison gives EURT 2016 opening speech

Blog, 19 July 2016
Adam Harisson

WWF was a founding member of the RSPO in 2004 – we helped set up the RSPO because of the fire and haze in the 1990s.  We’d looked into the causes and found both palm oil and pulp & paper as the major drivers of forest loss and that fire was widely used in converting land.  But we also knew that better performing companies were acting responsibly.  Our experience with the FSC and MSC also showed that credible, verified certification was a good way to focus the power of the rest of the value chain from investors to consumers on supporting transformation of the industry.

We have come a long way since then – 2800 members, independently accredited CBs, 21% of the world’s palm oil certified, 3 million hectares, 13 million tonnes, 350 trademark licences, P&C reviewed, RSPO NEXT and more.

We have stimulated huge change in the wider palm oil industry – ISPO and MSPO, POIG, SPOM, and many initiatives from individual companies and groups – Wilmar, SD, GAR, CGF, National Initiatives across Europe and emerging in Asia.

A few years ago Darrel Webber, CEO of RSPO, got very emotional at a roundtable talking about the inspiration of his new son to his work. I’m a bit older than him and my children are a bit older than his son.  The RSPO and the industry do bring my children to mind.  But for me it’s more like when they entered their difficult teenage years.

Sustainable palm oil is becoming a gawky adolescent with growing pains, acne and a nose that is too big for its face. It’s proving to be difficult to live with. Every time the phone rings (or you check LinkedIn) you find out exactly what terrible thing has happened now – he’s gone and been caught smoking and setting off the fire alarm – yet again.

Wouldn’t life be so much easier if we all just got out of palm oil and found something with a lower profile? Just imagine no more NGO campaigns, no more worries about health implications, no letters from concerned customers, no more having to go to Working Groups and Task Forces and Roundtables…

The reality is that sustainability challenges won’t go away if all we do is switch to something else. And even though it’s difficult living with a teenage sustainable palm oil industry there are good sides as well:

  • They are constantly experimenting and surprising you
  • They show the promise of what the future is going to be like

We now live in a world where many of the leading companies have made great commitments to change the world and are experimenting with new ideas, where groups like POIG are pushing the boundaries and pushing the RSPO.  We’ll hear more about RSPO NEXT today as an example.

But innovation and change can also be confusing.  Should we be saying no-deforestation, or zero-net deforestation?  Should we go with eth HCS approach or HCS+?  Is CSPO enough or should we be buying POIG or RSPO NEXT?  

It’s easy to get confused about what is the right thing to do nowadays – and some are using that as an excuse to do nothing or even to throw their hands up and walk away from palm oil. But actually this is exactly the time when we all need to re-double our efforts to make the RSPO work. The scale and the urgency of the challenge facing the industry means that we will only succeed if we collaborate – each of us running off in our own different directions may take the pressure of each of us as individual companies but it won’t add up the global transformation.

And sustainability isn’t just about the ‘headline issues’ it’s about all of the impacts positive and negative that the industry has on people, nature and the economy.  That means the industry needs to be delivering comprehensive change on all fronts – not picking off issues one by one.

Most importantly we need to be able to understand who is progressing and who is falling behind.  That’s as important for potential customers or clients as it is for NGOs.  We have a plethora of scorecards, rankings, dashboards of the industry and it is sometimes painfully being dragged to be more transparent – but this allows us to compare one with another.

But for that transparency to be useful we need to be comparing like with like.  To do this we all need to be working towards the same ends rather than chasing our own ideas of what is sustainable and what is not.  Which is why we need a credible definition of sustainable palm oil   that we all agree with and aim for and one which is independently verified by assessors that are themselves credible.

And the RSPO offers the only place where enough of the industry can come together quickly enough to work together towards a shared definition of what sustainability in palm oil means to all of us.  And the RSPO offers the best chance for us to trust and prove that we are all moving in the same direction. So what do we all need to do?

  • Growers – need to make sure that best practices are rolled out across the whole supply base – not just in their own estates but with all of their smallholders and independent suppliers – the weakest link will break the chain
  • Traders - need to stop waiting for demand to come knocking but create it – there are huge rewards for the early mover who can disrupt their tired old competitors in new markets
  • Users – whether they are supermarkets, manufacturers, the food services, energy providers or the animal feed sector need to buy the stuff – and not just for their own brands but everything they sell – you can’t have a conscience that you can turn on and off as you want
  • Investors – need to stop talking and get off the fence and starting wielding the power they have to shape the future of the global industry
  • Civil society – needs maintain a critical stance, but should also positively acknowledge efforts by frontrunners and innovators whether its individual companies or bodies like the RSPO.  And we need to work out a shared view of how we want to do that constructively – building on what works
  • RSPO – needs to start supporting all its members to do the best they can – it needs to stimulate innovation and best practice as well as hold all of us the account.

But even if we all did all of that we still wouldn’t stop deforestation. The failure of governance at all levels can be seen in how unacceptable and unsustainable practises persist but also is a serious brake on progress and change by those companies that are committed to doing better. We are starting to see changes in how governments operate – particularly in Indonesia where the President has announced a moratorium on all new developments.  But at the same time we are getting mixed messages criticising companies that have declared themselves that they want to operate differently. We are seeing the emergence of jurisdictional approaches in Sabah and elsewhere that seek to fix broken governance alongside broken business practises – but at the same time we are seeing the Malaysian government trying to prevent even a basic level of transparency about who owns which land. I see this table banging as the last gasp of the old order trying desperately to pretend that the writing isn’t on the wall.

Governments are the key to a more sustainable palm oil industry – wherever they are in the world they need to stamp out bad practices and make being sustainable the easy and only option. The next big challenge we all need to face is how to drag them into the journey that we are all on together. Transformation doesn’t depend on the commitments made –it depends on those promises being turned into change and action on the ground.