The new RSPO palm oil certification standard is a win for forests

Helen Bellfield

Image courtesy of Iceland Foods

Finally some good news for Indonesia’s forests. After days of headlines following the Iceland Christmas advertisement ban, a long-scheduled vote on reviewing the rules of the major palm oil certification standard took place in Malaysia — with members of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil agreeing to tighten its standards on deforestation.

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) is the world’s largest certification scheme for palm oil, covering 19% of global palm oil. Financial institutions and companies use RSPO certification to implement their policies aiming to reduce or eliminate deforestation from their supply chains. For example, the 2017 Forest 500 assessment report found that 85 of 165 companies assessed for their palm oil policies mention that they are using RSPO certification.

However, to date the RSPO standard (its Principles and Criteria) had not ensured deforestation free palm oil. It covered primary and high conservation forests, but excluded secondary forest growth and peatland. These provide critical habitats for orangutans and are essential for carbon storage. Some critics have argued that the RSPO certification is too weak to reduce deforestation.

The RSPO reviews its Principles and Criteria every five years, and at the RSPO Roundtable in Malaysia last week members voted for a significant tightening of its certification standards. These now include:

  • A ban on new plantings on peat from November 2018.
  • The integration of high carbon stock and high conservation value requirements to protect forests.
  • Strengthening of human rights and labour requirements.

The resolutions passed at the RSPO general assembly also incorporate efforts to increase supply chain transparency, including one new measure requiring members to publish the list of mills from which they obtain their palm oil. This will make it easier to understand to what extent members are sourcing palm oil from deforestation-risk areas.

These changes should be celebrated as an important milestone in fighting deforestation in global supply chains. They come none too soon, with the New York Declaration on Forests 2020 deadline to halve global deforestation looming.

Nevertheless, there is still much work to do. The majority of the palm oil market is not RSPO certified and supply chains still have limited transparency (something that Trase is trying to fix).

Most importantly, we need more companies to come to the table, particularly in India and China. These are key markets for palm oil where consumer and company engagement on deforestation is low and where transformation is desperately needed.

It is only by transforming the whole of the palm oil industry that we can protect forests. While the strengthened RSPO standard is a crucial step towards deforestation-free supply chains, more action is needed by buyers to incentivise sustainable palm oil production.

The new Accountability Framework will help in providing guidance and expectations for companies on setting and implementing sustainable sourcing policies. Sustainable production, rather than a simple palm oil boycott, is the way forward.

Helen Bellfield is Global Canopy’s Programme Director