According to The Oxford Dictionary, the definition of sustainability is the ‘avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance’.
We understand this to mean balancing our needs with the resources available to us, whilst protecting the future of the same resources for future generations. So what does this look like for the future of the hotly debated topic, palm oil? We’ve done a bit of digging to see what the options are that are currently in place.
The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, or RSPO, is a not for profit organisation working with stakeholders from across all sectors of the palm oil industry; from the growers and processors, to the end consumer and NGOs working to protect the environment. They are developing a workable set of standards for a future for sustainable palm oil. The standards set by the RSPO outline environmental and social impacts that, if complied with, can help reduce the negative effects of palm oil cultivation on the communities and environment within palm oil growing regions.
Palm oil is the world’s highest yielding vegetable oil crop, needing half the amount of land other oils, so making it the least expensive oil to produce; which is why simply eliminating palm oil from all products is not possible, or a healthy option for the environment. More environmental damage would be the result, with more land being cleared to keep up with our current demands for oil. Millions of people earn their living from the cultivation of palm oil, and it is estimated that in Indonesia and Malaysia alone, 4.5 million people work within the palm oil industry.
The environmental and social criteria laid out by the RSPO can help to minimize the environmental impacts caused by palm oil cultivation if those involved stick to it. One of the leading principles of the RSPO is to ensure the protection of primary and virgin forests, which contain significant biodiversity and endangered species. However, this same policy doesn’t extend to protect replanted forests that are also contributing to the biodiversity of the geographical area, which are still taken over and cleared for palm oil cultivation.
According to lead author, Joss Lyons-White from the Grantham Institute, “Deforestation-free palm oil is possible, but our study found it is very challenging for companies to guarantee at present. For example, supply chains are so complex that tracing palm oil back to the source is very difficult – lots of trade may occur between different parties before manufacturing, where the palm oil is used in many different products for different purposes. This makes it hard to know exactly where the original oil was from – and whether it was linked to deforestation or not” – the journal ‘Global Environmental Change Climate Change and the Environment and the Department of Life Sciences at Imperial’.
The other challenge we’ve come across is that the RSPO has come under frequent scrutiny about it’s ineffectiveness in dealing with members found not to be sticking to the policies required for certification, and as a result there is some question mark around the claims made by some producers of their upholding the standards required to be able to claim as being sustainable.
In answer to this scrutiny, RSPO has now called for the establishment of a Legality and traceability task force, to improve the standard of the supply chain system. Growers will be assessed every 5 years for full certification and annually assessed for continued compliance; and if this is adhered to, confidence in the recognised mark of the RSPO should increase with both members and consumers.The guiding principles set out by the RSPO are outlined in the infographic.
Only by being RSPO-certified by an independent auditor (approved by the RSPO) can producers claim that they produce, use and/or sell sustainable palm oil. Interestingly, we were quite surprised at the small volume of palm oil found to be sustainable; in 2018/19, the global production volume of palm oil amounted to 73.5 million metric tons, of which only 13.61 million tonnes (approximately 19%) was certified RSPO sustainable: so there is still a long way to go.
The question is, is sustainable palm oil the answer? We absolutely believe it is, even with it’s imperfect practices. There is much to be done to ensure full traceability and adherence of producers to the criteria set out in the RSPO standards; however, even an imperfect system which is working towards a better practice is preferable to no attempt to change the status quo. As the world’s consumers continue to place a spotlight on these issues, the pressure for change can only grow, ensuring we continue to move towards the best possible solution within the palm oil industry to ensure we leave a world for the next generation.
Look out for this logo on packaging to ensure that what you are buying is made from sustainable palm oil. Otherwise, try and stay free from palm oil!