Certification fails to transform the palm oil industry – what next?

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The RSPO’s standards are a flagship in the drive to make palm oil sustainable. But much more is needed to truly bring change.

A worker on an RSPO-certified plantation in Malaysia sprays diluted herbicides around a young oil palm to keep weeds down. Combining industrial with more environmentally friendly farming techniques, the nitrogen-fixing cover plant, Mucuna bracteata, is left to grow nearby. This reduces the use of chemicals by helping to control weeds, and also improves soil fertility. (Image: Mike Kahn / Alamy)

In 2004, a new entity was formed with big goals to end deforestation, stop environmentally harmful practices and improve ethical sourcing in the palm oil industry, which was increasingly being linked to widespread fires, habitat loss and human rights violations in Southeast Asia.

That entity was the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), founded by leading industry actors together with the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF). Sixteen years later, despite measurable progress and continuous efforts to improve the practices of its certified producers, the organisation has been criticised on many levels. It has been accused of being beholden to industry, enabling greenwashing and for being slow to act when alerted to violations by its members. Some believe the path forward is to improve the RSPO from within, but others believe alternative models may be a better route to ensuring sustainability in the palm oil industry.

“A multifaceted approach is what we need to drive change in the industry,” said Michael Guindon, global palm oil lead with WWF in Singapore. “Certification is one element that’s going to lead to widespread transformation of the palm oil sector.”

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