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Good year, bad year: 2016 was challenging for RSPO; Will it fare better in 2017?

By David Burrows , 08-Feb-2017
Last updated on 08-Feb-2017 at 09:36 GMT2017-02-08T09:36:33Z

© iStock
© iStock

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) faced a number of well-publicised challenges last year. Consumers remain confident in the scheme, it appears, but can the same be said for the companies involved? Is this a make or break year?

RSPO recently published its 2016 Impact Report. Darrel Webber – as chief executives are wont to do – put a positive spin on the previous 12 months. There have been “significant” improvements on audit quality and “we are making our voice heard in international and sub-national policy forums”, he notes.

Land set aside for conservation has also increased and there’s been a revamp of the complaints system. Excellent news. But then the harsh reality of the past 12 months kicks in. “Despite these major milestones, I am still concerned with some of the developments of the past year.”

Webber highlights how the organisation is “still wrestling uncomfortably” with the legal issues surrounding concession maps.

Campaigners suggest companies are “dodging accountability” and the RSPO needs to take a tough stance on transparency.

Read how major food manufacturers and environmental campaigners reacted to RSPO's Impact Report here .

Modern day slavery and child labour – “two of the most horrendous human rights violations”, as Webber puts it – also need to be addressed.

Indeed, the findings from November’s report by Amnesty International cast a shadow over the sustainable palm oil supply chain that will linger for some time: three of the five palm growers and eight of the nine food and personal care manufacturers are RSPO-certified.

“Corporate giants like Colgate, Nestlé and Unilever assure consumers that their products use ‘sustainable palm oil’, but our findings reveal that the palm oil is anything but,” explained the charity’s senior investigator Meghna Abraham at the time.

Clouds gathering

One of the RSPO’s founding members was responsible for the year’s other dark moment. Back in April, Malaysian palm oil supplier IOI was suspended and many saw this as proof that the scheme does in fact have some teeth. Lifting the suspension just four months later led some to suggest the panel’s bark wasn’t as big as its bite (incidentally, the IOI suspension isn’t mentioned in the Impact Report that’s just been published).

So, put all these challenges together and the RSPO’s ‘to do’ list is long – and arduous, as Ferrero’s spokeswoman suggests.

On one side there will be the significant challenge of de-linking palm oil from deforestation by integrating the HCS [High Carbon Stock] Approach toolkit into the current standard [Webber is pushing for it but it’s by no means a foregone conclusion]. On the other, there is the challenge of upholding workers’ rights whilst breaking the link between palm oil and labour exploitation. We also expect improvements in auditing and grievance procedures to secure the enhanced rules,” she adds.

Others are similarly expectant of a big year in the history of the RSPO. The coming standard review is a key opportunity for RSPO to improve its approach to deforestation and social rights, in particular,” says Jonathan Horrell, director of sustainability at Mondelēz International. “It’s good to see RSPO recognising the challenges that it faces.”

However, this is a scheme that moves at the speed of its most conservative members thanks to a consensus-based structure. The more ambitious companies have been left frustrated, but how long will they wait around? The IOI saga and Amnesty’s exposé have isolated holes in the scheme and they need to be quickly repaired to keep the ambitious (and public-facing) members on side.

Credibility issues

The fact it’s businesses rather than consumers that need to be reassured is an important point: a tough 2016 hasn’t dented the RSPO’s reputation externally as much as it has internally.

Most consumers are not familiar with RSPO in the major consuming countries like India, Indonesia, China and other Asian countries. In Europe and North America, meanwhile, there is limited awareness. Reputation monitoring (using online conversations rather than market research with consumer groups) commissioned by RSPO shows an “upward trend” against a range of reputation indicators over the last 12 months.

The credibility of the RSPO amongst some buyers “is more of an issue”, admits Stephen Watson, head of corporate engagement and Asia at WWF.

Leading brand manufacturers and retailers have their own ‘No deforestation, no peat and no exploitation’ commitments which go beyond the RSPO principles and criteria (P&Cs), for example. “To remain relevant to these companies the RSPO standard must be strengthened, whilst at the same time ensuring that RSPO addresses the challenges of all stakeholders including smallholders,” he adds.

The current standards were adopted in 2013, so 2018 marks the next revision. The launch of RSPO NEXT last February offered companies an option beyond the current P&Cs but it’s a voluntary bolt-on – revising the baselines standards upwards will be far more complicated given that a consensus will, as always, need to be achieved.

The RSPO strongly believes in “inclusivity”, the scheme’s European outreach and engagement director Danielle Morley tells FoodNavigator.

We appreciate there may be frustration and impatience and some will say we are not going fast enough or far enough,“ she explains, but an inclusive and consensus based approach is essential if we are to achieve our mission to transform the palm oil industry to sustainability”.

This year marks 13 years since the establishment of the RSPO, but it was last year that may go down as the unlucky one. How will 2017 be remembered? As Morley suggests, that’s impossible to predict given that we are talking about a multi-stakeholder consultative process.

Palm oil is inextricably linked to deforestation,” she explains. “Through the criteria of the RSPO certification and standards system, it is our mission to make sustainable production the norm; to reduce deforestation and protect areas of high conservation value.”

The review of the current standards should provide a clearer indication of whether the members all agree. The achievements of the RSPO to date should not be forgotten – almost 20% of global production is now RSPO certified – but there is a feeling that the next 12 months represents a big step in the evolution of this behemoth of an inter-sectoral body.

Some of the world’s largest palm oil users are working hard to ensure the palm oil they use is sustainable and whilst they recognise the limitations of the RSPO, support for the model remains strong. However Ferrero’s response suggests that patience amongst some of the more progressive companies is not endless: “We believe that the opportunity given by the revision process and consequent upgrade of the standard will have a positive impact on consumer trust towards the RSPO and the palm oil sector industry.” 

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