Orangutan forest loss palm oil

It’s the 20th anniversary of palm oil watchdog RSPO – but 20 years of failure is nothing to celebrate

Today (8 April), the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RPSO) – the main voluntary certification scheme for palm oil – will be 20-years-old.

The industry watchdog is meant to assure consumers that palm oil bearing its stamp of approval is free from environmental or social violations.

These include forests not being cleared, workers not being abused and indigenous peoples’ lands not being taken over – problems which nevertheless continue to happen.

In the UK, all the major supermarkets use the RSPO to ensure the palm oil that they sell is sustainable.

But 20 years on from when it started, the RSPO is still failing to ensure the palm oil it certifies is actually sustainable and adheres to the standards consumers would expect, such as being free from forced labour or not endangering the habitats of threatened species such as orangutans through deforestation.

In the meantime, the EU has adopted a new law – the EU Deforestation Regulation (EUDR) – which will come into effect at the end of 2024 and for which EIA has long campaigned. The Regulation requires companies placing palm oil (and other commodities) on the EU market to ensure they have not been produced illegally or caused deforestation post-2020.

The new EUDR makes it very clear that certification schemes such as the RSPO may help companies with their risk assessment, but companies are still ultimately responsible for undertaking due diligence and for any breaches that take place.

They are not allowed to just rely on certification schemes for compliance – which is just as well, given the RSPO’s track record.

Here we highlight some of the watchdog’s biggest failures.

Forest cleared for oil palm plantation (c) EIA


Biggest forest destroyer in Indonesia becomes RSPO-certified

The company that has cut down the most rainforest for palm oil in Indonesia since 2001 – PT Bio Inti Agrindo (BIA) – shockingly became RSPO-certified in 2021.

The company cleared more than 26,000 hectares of pristine forest for palm oil in Indonesia, an area equivalent to the size of Birmingham. Amazingly, this is allowed under the RSPO’s rules – a company can clear forests and then join the RSPO, compensate for the loss and receive certification.


Companies with forced labour remain RSPO-certified

In 2020, two of Malaysia’s biggest palm oil companies – Sime Darby and Felda Global Holdings (FGV) – were banned by US Customs and Border Protection from importing palm oil into the US due to allegations of forced labour. Both were RSPO certified and Sime Darby was 100 per cent RSPO-certified.

In early 2023, the US ban was lifted on Sime Darby after it took action to correct its forced labour issues, including setting aside $20 million to compensate workers, but FGV remains banned.

Both companies remained RSPO-certified during the ban and investigation by the US authorities, even though the RSPO’s own investigations subsequently found Sime Darby to be in violation of its labour standards.


RSPO found to have failed to ensure its rules are adhered to

Multiple reports – including Who Watches the Watchmen in 2015 and Who Watches the Watchmen 2 in 2019 by EIA – highlight major failings in how the RSPO system ensures companies are compiling with its rules.

In 2021, the RSPO published its own report which presented the root causes of the inadequate implementation of its rules, finally acknowledging at least some of the problems.

Continual issues of credibility plague the RSPO, however, and in 2022 a total of 99 NGOs denounced the organisation.

A patch of freshly cleared forest

Forest freshly cleared for oil palms (c) EIA


Study finds no difference between RSPO-certified and non-certified plantations

A landmark study in 2018, found there was no difference between palm oil plantations certified by the RSPO versus those not certified, in terms of environmental and social sustainability.

The study looked into whether RSPO-certified plantations protected orangutans, reduced fires and alleviated poverty, but found the RSPO wanting.

Other studies have come to similar conclusions. For example, another study found 75 per cent of RSPO-certified plantations have been deforested or are located where endangered animals lived in the past 30 years and therefore certification was “meaningless”.


Indigenous peoples’ complaints constantly unresolved by the RSPO

The RSPO has its own complaints system, but there is a trend of it failing to properly address complaints, especially those coming from local communities and indigenous peoples (IPLCs).

Instead, many of the cases have been dismissed by the RSPO due to insufficient evidence or have been closed without being resolved. Such cases include the Dayak Hibun community in Indonesia, whose complaint was dismissed after 11 years.

By doing so, the RSPO is failing to uphold one of its key values – assurance that there has been Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) from local peoples and that their lands have not been taken over against their will.

Palm oil deforestation in Papua

Land deforested for palm oil in Papua (c) EIA


Will the RSPO become redundant?

The RSPO is currently in the process of revising its rules, its Principles and Criteria, a process it undertakes every five years. The new rules are due to be adopted in late 2024.

The RSPO has already commissioned a gap analysis of the EUDR vs the RSPO and found that its rules do not fully align with what is required by the EUDR on the three key elements of the legislation – deforestation, legality and traceability. It is expected to revise some of its rules to more closely align with the EUDR and is also developing a new digital platform for traceability.

But, given the poor record it has of enforcing its standards to date, there arguably needs to be a much greater focus on ensuring compliance, not only on strengthening standards. Even if the RSPO’s rules did match those of the EUDR, the RSPO is likely to be of little use when it cannot ensure its rules are followed.

The world has moved on. Many companies already have their own sustainability policies, which are stronger than the RSPO. Now the EUDR brings in new legal requirements whereby companies will have to ensure their supply chains are free from illegalities and deforestation. As a voluntary certification scheme, with a poor track record to date, that is not something the RSPO can guarantee nor has the teeth to enforce.

The EUDR – and other similar new regulations such as the UK’s Environment Act – usher in a new era where there will be legal requirements on companies using palm oil, rather than just the voluntary commitments that have existed to date, an era in which consumers will hopefully get what they expect – palm oil that doesn’t harm the planet or people.