It has been a challenging year for RSPO.
Its reputation was badly hit recently following the decision of many leading food manufacturers to drop Malaysian supplier IOI after revelations of illegal deforestation – despite being RSPO-certified. The RSPO did suspend IOI for the breaches in its principles and criteria but this was prompted by IOI’s customers.
The RSPO also quickly reinstated the supplier, raising questions over whether IOI had enough time to implement meaningful changes in its supply chain.
Amnesty International’s report, published this morning, is cause for further headaches.
One of RSPO’s much vaunted strengths is that it has wide industry uptake. It certifies nearly one fifth (18%) of global palm oil and says there is no other broad certification scheme for a sustainable agricultural crop which goes as far as RSPO for palm oil.
But what is this uptake worth if RSPO has been linked to unsustainable practices, such as child labour, human rights abuses and deforestation – the very practices it is supposed to stamp out?
It’s a question of scale, according to RSPO’s CEO Darrel Webber.
“The absolute number of complaints against RSPO members is bound to increase, as the number of hectares covered by certification increases,” he told FoodNavigator this morning. “We are glad to see that in the past years, the RSPO has received [fewer] complaints and has been better at resolving active cases.
“RSPO is a system, and just like most systems, it falls short from perfection. This said, what the uptake of the RSPO scheme proves is that perfect alternatives are not available, and the RSPO remains the best available option to make concrete steps away from business as usual.”
For the sake of its own reputation should RSPO suspend Wilmar as it did IOI?
Not according to Eric Wakker, director of Aidenvironment Asia, a consultancy which works with palm oil traders and refiners so they can deliver environmental compliance in their supply chains.
“We [Aidenvironment] insisted on IOI's suspension because IOI was unwilling back then to properly verify and address the issues raised. The suspension helped and hence the issues we had with IOI are practically addressed now. We don't see such unwillingness on Wilmar's part.
“We know that they had focused much of their attention to addressing deforestation and peatland development and that has delivered some real results. Now that the labour issue has been slapped right on the table, it is time to catch up with this issue. The labour issue is not unique to Wilmar, or Indonesia.”
New complaints procedure
Is this how it works then; RSPO relies on external parties exposing serious breaches of its own principles and criteria in order to enforce them?
Webber said that RSPO began taking action to address the issues raised by the Amnesty International report through its Assurance system before publication of it.
“[This] should be an assurance to consumers that the RSPO system is improving on its ability to identify and resolve such issues,” he said.
Today (30 November) also marks the close of a public consultation on RSPO’s new complaint procedure. “The new procedure is surprisingly good,” said Wakker, adding that Amnesty International could perhaps use it to challenge Wilmar’s performance on deforestation and land conflicts as Aidenvironment did in 2007.
However, going through the complaint’s procedure, although designed to be open and transparent, would probably mean less public attention on the issue.
There’s room for both and they can be complementary, said RSPO’s director for global outreach and engagement, Stefano Savi.
“Quality investigation work [such as Amnesty’s report] certainly helps in raising the profile of the issues, and instigating change. This said, we believe real progress can only be made when investigation is followed up by engagement with the industry and all affected players, in a truly multi stakeholder platform," he said.
“[…] The use of public media as a platform to surface the issues and start engagement does not prevent a follow up via the RSPO complaints system, if appropriate, and vice versa.”
Another bump in the long road to sustainable palm oil
Wakker says there is “broad recognition that the certification bodies deliver substandard work”, but RSPO is aware of its own shortcomings and is working on fixing them.
These were key issues raised at the organisation’s 14th annual roundtable conference (RT14) held in Bangkok last month.
According to Wakker, the scandals that resurface are part of a long process towards sustainability.
"’It’s the political economy, stupid’" is what one needs to realise when we find out about this massive-scale environmental and social exploitation. We're sweeping the mess of the globalisation madness of the 1990s, and we're all but done,” he said.