Sustainable palm oil: from confusion to credibility

Blog, 14 May 2015
© Mazidi Ghani / WWF

Adam Harrison, WWF Palm Oil Lead and RSPO Board member

These are heady times for those of us pushing to end the unacceptable environmental and social impacts of some palm oil production. Public awareness of the issue is exploding and each week seems to bring a new announcement from a major company committing to sustainable palm oil.

But the proliferation of promises, policies and projects can be confusing. What do the different commitments mean? How do they compare? Are they making any real difference for rainforests, wildlife or the communities affected? What should other companies do in response? Most importantly, are they helping to transform the wider industry?

Confusion can be used as an excuse to do nothing – which is why it’s important to have some clarity. Action on sustainable palm oil needs to be comprehensive, comparable, credible and collaborative.

While saving orang-utans or avoiding deforestation might grab the headlines, the industry needs to take comprehensive action across the whole range of challenges it faces. These include land and labour rights, health and safety standards, preventing pollution, tackling soil erosion, fair treatment of smallholder suppliers and much, much more. The standards the industry meets must address all these.

It’s also important that commitments are comparable. Does company A’s ‘zero-deforestation’ mean the same as company B’s ‘no-deforestation’? When growers say they won’t plant on peat soils, do they share the same definition of peat? If they claim to respect the rights of communities to the land they occupy, how are those rights defined, and how are conflicts resolved? None of these is an easy issue – if they were, they would have been solved years ago.  That’s why the industry needs a standard  against which it can benchmark and report on  its progress.

Next, companies need a credible way to verify that things have changed on the ground not just in the boardroom or the annual report. That means using independent auditors (who need to be well policed themselves). No company would publish its financial statements before its accounts have been audited – yet it’s all too common to see companies touting their palm oil successes in glossy CSR reports or presentations at international conferences, without any third-party verification to back them up.  

Finally, it’s crucial that companies collaborate in order to learn from each others’ innovations and experiences. Cleaning up your own supply chain, or even boycotting palm oil altogether, might be good for your company’s image – but it won’t fix the bigger problems.

Those four Cs inform the work of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). WWF, the organization I work for, helped create the RSPO in 2004, and we’ve been actively engaged in its development ever since. Our aim is to make the RSPO as effective as it can be in ending the negative effects of palm oil production – not only for its members but for the whole industry. 

The RSPO’s principles and criteria are comprehensive enough to cover all the key issues the industry faces. It’s easy to compare one company’s performance against another’s, in the knowledge that each is being held to the same credible standard by independent, accredited auditors. And it’s a collaborative effort, reached through agreement between a wide range of stakeholders, including environmental and social NGOs as well as businesses from all along the value chain.  Its evolving work is based on each member learning from the experience of the others.

Today, the RSPO sets the most widely accepted and applied standard for sustainable palm oil in the world.  Almost a fifth of all palm oil meets the RSPO criteria. Hundreds of members are actively using and promoting RSPO-certified sustainable palm oil. Of all the palm oil initiatives out there, RSPO is the best placed to tip the global industry into a new way of operating responsibly and sustainably.  But the RSPO and its standard is not the final word in sustainable palm oil.  Sustainability is a process of continually improving, innovating and adapting.

The RSPO and its standard represent the foundation for producing palm oil sustainably. The industry can and must do more. That’s why WWF helped to form the Palm Oil Innovation Group (POIG), a place for companies to build on the RSPO and go beyond its standard. Growers, traders, manufacturers and retailers are rising to the challenge, joining and supporting POIG, and innovating in areas where the RSPO has already pointed the way. We’ve seen ambitious public pledges to stop planting on peat, end deforestation and reduce the climate impacts of palm oil.  And now we are starting to see the real innovators show how to do that in practice as well as verify their progress.

To cut through the confusion: the RSPO and POIG are the only way to go.  Other initiatives offer only part of the sustainable palm oil solution – addressing only a few of the important issues or only a few of the important companies. The RSPO is not perfect and often moves frustratingly slowly, but POIG is showing how, by building on its firm foundation, that the global palm oil industry will be able to transform itself. That’s the only option for companies interested in real change.

To find out more about WWF and its work on palm oil, visit or