In 2004, a new entity was formed with big goals to end deforestation, stop environmentally harmful practices and improve ethical sourcing in the palm oil industry, which was increasingly being linked to widespread fires, habitat loss and human rights violations in Southeast Asia.

That entity was the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), founded by leading industry actors together with the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF). Sixteen years later, despite measurable progress and continuous efforts to improve the practices of its certified producers, the organisation has been criticised on many levels. It has been accused of being beholden to industry, enabling greenwashing and for being slow to act when alerted to violations by its members. Some believe the path forward is to improve the RSPO from within, but others believe alternative models may be a better route to ensuring sustainability in the palm oil industry.

“A multifaceted approach is what we need to drive change in the industry,” said Michael Guindon, global palm oil lead with WWF in Singapore. “Certification is one element that’s going to lead to widespread transformation of the palm oil sector.”

While the RSPO is the largest and most recognisable standard, there are in fact many other approaches. Some attempt to utilise several certification schemes, while others focus on empowering smallholders, or take a “landscape” approach, covering all commodities grown within a particular area. Companies across the palm oil supply chain are also making independent efforts to better map their palm oil sourcing. Despite this, whether or not palm oil can become a fully sustainable industry will depend on deepening the impact of existing entities like the RSPO, along with more collaboration by major actors along the supply chain.

“We haven’t seen the RSPO play the role that it should yet, because [they] have repeatedly allowed bad actors to be RSPO members,” said Averbeck.

Another issue is that the RSPO has yet to achieve its goal of transforming the industry and making sustainable palm oil “the norm”. Only 19% of palm oil produced globally is RSPO certified, meaning the vast majority is at risk of being connected to deforestation, fires, human rights abuses and other environmental and land-use issues.

Even companies that are RSPO members, and have committed to achieve full RSPO certification across their supply chains, are not guaranteed to be producing palm oil that is deforestation free. Wilmar International is estimated to control 40% of the global palm oil supply chain through its subsidiaries, but it purchases palm oil from third-party suppliers, increasing the risk of “leakage” – palm oil linked to deforestation finding its way into the certified supply chain.

The lack of progress over 16 years and the RSPO’s shortcomings, together with high-profile NGO campaigns using the plight of charismatic animals such as the orangutan to highlight deforestation and demonise palm oil production, have led some brands to choose a dramatic form of certification: palm oil-free.

Read the full article about palm oil by Nithin Coca at China Dialogue.