Is RSPO certification becoming irrelevant?

By Niamh Michail contact

- Last updated on GMT

"Manufacturers and traders... have different levels of ambition and different interpretations of sustainable sourcing, which is adding considerable new complexity to the market," says Rabobank analyst Pawan Kumar.
"Manufacturers and traders... have different levels of ambition and different interpretations of sustainable sourcing, which is adding considerable new complexity to the market," says Rabobank analyst Pawan Kumar.

Related tags: Palm oil, Sustainability

Companies are increasingly demanding certified palm oil using criteria that are stricter than current RSPO standards – does the mean the RSPO certification is in danger of becoming irrelevant?

Mondelez and Danone have announced they are using additional requirements to their sustainable palm oil, such as protecting peatlands and reduced greenhouse gas emissions, and more will be following in their footsteps as companies battle to become ‘sustainability leaders’, says Rabobank.

In fact, a Rabobank report entitled The Many Flavours of Sustainable Palm Oil​ predicts that by 2020 half of all palm oil used by manufacturers who purchase RSPO-certified oil will be sourced  with criteria that go above and beyond the current RSPO standards.

“This growing demand for more stringent criteria could potentially undermine the relevance of RSPO-certified palm oil to buyers, negatively affecting demand,” ​says Rabobank analyst Pawan Kumar.

The RSPO's 4 purchasing models

Identity Preserved​: Sustainable palm oil from a single certified source (normally a plantation or a group of plantations) is kept separate from ordinary palm oil throughout the chain. The origin of CPSO can be traced back up to the plantation level.

Segregated​ (SG): Sustainable palm oil from different certified sources is kept separate from ordinary palm oil throughout the chain. The origin of CPSO can be traced back up to the mill level. Manufacturers can use the RSPO trademark and claim ‘This product contains certified sustainable palm oil’,

Mass balance:​ Sustainable palm oil from certified sources is monitored administratively in the chain, but is mixed with ordinary palm oil. Manufacturers can the RSPO trademark (‘Mixed’) and claim: ‘Contributes to the production of certified sustainable palm oil’.

GreenPalm (book and claim): The chain is not monitored. Manufacturers buy conventional palm oil but buy GreenPalm certificates to ‘off-set’ this as each certificate corresponds to a given quantity of sustainably produced palm oil. A company can't guarantee the actual oil it buys is sustainable, but it knows the same amount has been produced sustainably somewhere in the world. Participants can use the GreenPalm logo and claim: ‘Supports the production of RSPO-certified sustainable palm oil’. 

But Danielle Morley, RSPO’s European director of outreach and engagement, told FoodNavigator the RSPO welcomes any initiative aimed at improving sustainability performance. “Policies adopted by private food manufacturers that go beyond the RSPO principles & criteria are in line with our aspirations of continuous improvement and should be seen as the successful outcome of the journey started some ten years ago by RSPO.”

She said the proposed RSPO Next programme would seek to keep criteria attractive to branded manufacturers by expanding the standards.

Designed for growers who wish to make additional commitments rather than buyers, the voluntary addendum will only be available to growers who can demonstrate that they have fully implemented the RSPO principles & criteria as well as additional policies.

If adopted, Morley said that the addendum would allow growers who have decided to move faster to better communicate and implement their sustainability practices. “It will allow the RSPO standard to remain representative of the industry as a whole and to continue in its ambition of transforming the entire industry from the bottom to the top.

“Through the inclusion of all players, including those with advanced commitments to sustainability, the RSPO standard will continue to improve its credibility and accountability,” ​she said. 

More opportunities for niche

Meanwhile, these stricter interpretations of what sustainable sourcing means is making a complex market even more complicated – but also creating opportunities for niche players.

Kumar says: “The trend towards sustainability is an opportunity for niche players and dedicated suppliers with vertically integrated supply chains who specialise in highly traceable palm oil. Niche or small volumes will prevent economies of scale and result in premiums for sustainable palm oil with more stringent criteria.”

But it will also create increasingly complex supply chains. “For many suppliers, creating, maintaining and controlling different certified and traceable supply chains remains an inventory challenge, and the focus will therefore be on efficiency: making sure all purchased palm oil matches client interests.”​ 

RSPO-certified palm oil accounted for 20% of the global palm oil supply between 2008 and 2014, but total demand is still only half of global supply. Suppliers and traders in the US and Europe currently account for 80-90% of certified palm oil but demand in Asia is rising.

Rabobank predicts that other global commodity markets, such as soy and sugar, could see the same sustainability drive as palm oil in coming years.

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