Palm oil fruits

Sustainable palm oil watchdog’s credibility questioned by independent review

A highly critical independent review has highlighted significant failings by the watchdog set up to reassure consumers that everyday products with palm oil have been made without damaging the environment.

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was created in 2004 to reassure shoppers and businesses that anything bearing its label is not connected to rainforest destruction, including the habitats of endangered species such as orangutans, human rights abuses and contributing to the climate crisis.

It has nearly 5,000 members in more than 90 countries and some of the world’s biggest multinationals such Unilever, Procter & Gamble, Kellogg’s and Johnson & Johnson use RSPO-certified palm oil in everything from hair shampoo to food.

The new review by Adam Harrison – a former member of the RSPO’s Board of Governors – was conducted after two EIA reports revealed a catalogue of failures in the RSPO’s operation.

Who Watches the Watchmen? in 2015 revealed a catalogue of failures within its certification system and accused it of effectively giving false environmental credibility to products carrying its guarantee, known as ‘greenwashing’.

The sequel, Who Watches the Watchmen 2 in 2019, highlighted the watchdog’s failings to sufficiently address the concerns raised in the first report and stated that its Assurance Task Force, set up to tackle these very issues, was one of the worst-run and poorest performing parts of the organisation and had failed to complete its objectives.

Harrison ‘s review agrees that the RSPO’s Assurance Task Force “was not a well-managed process. It took on a very large and complex task with arguably inadequate capacity and resources. It did not take a sufficiently strategic approach to the challenge.”

His review – currently in draft format and due to be discussed at the Assurance Forum meeting of the RSPO on 26 June – relays that much of the blame for the poor management of the overall process lies with the RSPO Secretariat.

Of the 49 activities to be undertaken by the Assurance Task Force, 10 are rated as complete, 34 as ongoing and five as stalled, showing much remains to be done.

The review makes a number of recommendations, including for wider stakeholder engagement to continue, for better chairing, greater capacity and resources and for the RSPO to conclude uncompleted work.

Siobhan Pearce, EIA Forests Campaigner, said: “We welcome the findings which mirror what we discovered in our two Watchmen reports and which agreed with us that the RSPO’s Assurance Task Force had serious deficiencies and we in turn agree with its recommendations to the RSPO on how to improve.

“We hope the RSPO will take these on board, not least ensuring it takes a more strategic approach to assurance matters. There remain fundamental issues on how the RSPO is ensuring that its standards are observed which need to be addressed.”

Oil palm plantation, Indonesia

“We welcome the review of the RSPO’s Assurance Taskforce that has found it suffered from some serious deficiencies and has made recommendations to the RSPO on how to improve the moving forward.

While the independent review has looked primarily at how the Assurance Task Force functioned, meanwhile the Assurance Standing Committee, which replaced the Task Force as a permanent fixture within the RSPO, has been developing a new workplan and indicators.

These include revising the RSPO’s New Planting Procedures, certification systems and complaints system – all areas our report highlighted as in need of improvement.

Pearce added: “We hope the RSPO Assurance Standing Committee will continue to take this forward and deliver on its stated outcomes. We welcome the progress made to date on reviewing where the Assurance Task Force went wrong and wait to see whether the RSPO delivers on strengthening its assurance systems and, therefore, its credibility.”

What we said in Who Watches the Watchmen? 2 What the review said
The Assurance Task Force (ATF) was one of the most poorly managed, run and disorganised working groups ever established by the RSPO “The ATF does indeed seem to have been a poorly managed process. Records show that five meetings were held – but minutes are only available for four of them Timetables were rarely set for actions and those that were, were often not kept to.”
The Task Force has not completed its work in three years of running and the impacts of implementation are unclear and un-monitored; “In the end, the ATF ran for 3½ years and did not complete all the tasks it took on. There seems to have been no final Progress Report with which the Board could have decided whether the ATF had completed its work … The effectiveness of training (and the new materials) in achieving change is generally not being monitored and follow-up efforts to ensure changes are ‘socialised’ within the target audiences is not being conducted.”
Issues were neglected over the course of time “While the scope of the ATF expanded in some directions, it failed to pick up on some of the issues identified in the Who Watches the Watchmen report. The final Terms of Reference for the ATF were agreed … without reference to the Board which may have been a missed opportunity to either limit the scope or to allocate more resources to the work … Not only that but there was clearly gaps between what the Terms of Reference set out and what work the ATF actually did and what it reported on”
No system to manage recommendations “Progress Reporting (either public or to the ATF) was intermittent and the numbering and ordering of issues and actions taken changed each time making it difficult to follow progress over the life of the ATF … Whilst an expanded list of complex and inter-related jobs undoubtedly contributed to the poor performance of the ATF it is clear that underlying this was a failure to progress work by the Secretariat and a failure to ensure delivery and monitor progress by the ATF.”
The wider Assurance Task Force was isolated from the RSPO Secretariat of the Task Force, which operated opaquely “The Secretariat have confirmed that they were meeting regularly – but that they were not recording these meetings and only updating the wider ATF at the full meetings”
The different assessors – certification bodies, HCV and SEIA assessors – are administered by ASI, the HCV Assessor Licensing Scheme and RSPO respectively… The effect is that RSPO certification does not provide fair coverage of the P&C, and the disparity in the quality of the guidance and assessors continues to discredit the certification system. “ASI and ALS cannot directly improve the quality of audits and assessments themselves they can only ensure the competence of auditors and assessors. This means the RSPO cannot rely on ASI and ALS alone to improve audits and assessments. It is essential that there is a flow of information, about the competence of assessors and auditors and about the quality of their work, to the RSPO, to members contracting them and to the auditors and assessors themselves. But even more essential is that they act on that information…  [ASI and ALS] continue to report to the RSPO Secretariat via regular calls and periodic progress report but both seem unsure of the information is acted upon effectively by the RSPO.”