Certification has failed to stop rampant deforestation—so, how to improve it?

Eco labels like Fairtrade, RSPO, FSC and Rainforest Alliance claim to make palm oil, soy, cocoa and wood products sustainable, but are not stopping climate-critical rates of deforestation, a report from Greenpeace has highlighted. How do they need to change?

Logs being transported down a river from Ogan Komering Ilir paper mill South Sumatra, Indonesia. Image: Robin Hicks/Eco-Business
Logs being transported down a river from Ogan Komering Ilir paper mill South Sumatra, Indonesia. Image: Robin Hicks/Eco-Business

The eco labels that certify forest-risk commodities such as palm oil, soy, wood and cocoa have failed to stop ongoing deforestation despite their sustainability assurances, and are in need of an overhaul to halt further ecosystem degradation, according to a report from environmental campaign group, Greenpeace.

In “Destruction: certified”,  the report published on Wednesday (10 March), Greenpeace says that such schemes are enabling agribusinesses to operate as normal, and risk increasing the deforestation caused by farming these commodities if certification stimulates demand without addressing sustainability issues. 

While some certification schemes have strong standards, Greenpeace argues that implementation is weak and a lack of transparency and traceability means that these schemes are failing to prevent illegal forest clearance, land disputes and human rights abuses.

Agricultural production, driven by animal farming, soya and palm oil plantations, is linked to 70-80 per cent of deforestation globally, according to a United Nations report. 

Certification schemes are also failing to help companies that source forest-risk commodities to meet sustainability commitments, the report notes. The Consumer Goods Forum (CGF), a collective of consumer goods companies and retailers, pledged in 2010 to have deforestation-free supplies chains by 2020, but almost all CGF members failed to hit last year’s marker.

If certification schemes are to play any role as a tool to prevent deforestation and rights abuses, then they need to dramatically lift their game.

Grant Rosoman, global solutions senior advisor, Greenpeace forests campaign

Greenpeace assessed nine certification schemes for five land-use sectors — soy, palm oil, coffee, cocoa, and wood — based on a review of publicly available information. It rated the schemes on criteria ranging from whether or not they permit clearing forests and peatlands, to addressing labour rights and showing respect for indigenous land rights. It also scrutinised how each scheme is run, and how stringently its rules are enforced.

Rating the certifiers

National palm oil certfication schemes Indonesian Sustainable Palm Oil (ISPO) and Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) are the weakest of those critiqued, failing to meet any of the report’s criteria. These schemes were created by their governments together with the palm oil sector just under 10 years ago, and a lack of transparency and third-party accreditation are among the highlighted drawbacks. Their inclusion in the report comes a week after the Malaysian and Indonesian governments teamed up to fight what they call a smear campaign targeted at the commodity.

International palm oil certifier Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) has much stronger standards “on paper”, the report reads. In 2018, RSPO adopted a no-deforestation rule, and it has “moderately strong” multi-stakeholder governance structures and is transparent. However, RSPO’s standards are often poorly implemented, and members have broken RSPO rules without penalties, the report states, pointing to a previous Greenpeace invesigation into a Singapore-listed palm oil grower and RSPO member, Bumitama Agri, that had illegally deforested land in Indonesia in 2018 using an elaborate cover-up scheme to evade responsibility.

The impact of palm oil in Southeast Asia is often compared to the effects of soybean oil in South America. Both are linked to forest loss and high greenhouse gas emissions, although palm oil is believed to be the more efficient crop. In Greenpeace’s report, RSPO was rated to be a stronger system than the soy schemes featured, Round Table on Sustainable Soy (RTRS) and ProTerra, particularly for transparency; RSPO makes maps of sourcing areas publicly available and has a stronger grievance and complaints mechanism in place.

The most poorly-rated international scheme is the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC). It was called out for being too industry-dominated, not prohibiting the conversion of forests to plantations, and failing to protect high conservation value areas or the rights of indigenous peoples.

Forest products scheme, FSC, which was criticised last year for lapses that enabled IKEA to source illegal timber and a policy shift that NGOs feared would mean less scrutiny of rogues firms, ranks higher than its rival, PEFC. The findings commend the scheme for its multi-stakeholder governance structure and standards that include respect for workers’ rights. But Greenpeace states in its report that FSC is insufficiently transparent and weak on product traceability and implementing standards.

Fairtrade, which certifies cocoa and coffee, rates well for governance and addressing labour rights, and is the only certification system that guarantees a minimum price safety net for farmers. But concern remains about the scheme’s effectiveness. A 2017 study pointed to mixed results for the livelihoods of smallholder farmers enrolled in the Fairtrade programme, and a need to improve labour standards and reduce child labour. 

Grant Rosoman, global solutions senior advisor for Greenpeace’s forests campaign, says that all of the schemes have failed to prevent deforestation and human rights abuses, and the two most highly-rated on the scorecard —  RSPO and FSC — only got 8 out of 20 and 7 out of 20, respectively. “Disappointingly, none of the schemes got it mostly right, or could be held up as best practice for the indicators we assessed them against,” Rosoman told Eco-Business.

How to fix certification 

The major problem with certification schemes is that they are underpinned by market-based mechanisms, so the incentive to meet environmental and social standards is market access and sales, not sustainable production, the report says; essentially, certification is not designed to address the growth in supply and demand for commodities that is driving ecosystem destruction.

But certification can play a role in responsible agricultural production —  as a supplement to broader responsible trade measures and legislation to protect forests — if the right steps taken to improve practices, Greenpeace argues in its report. 

“They need to dramatically lift their game,” says Rosoman.

The first way is to ensure inclusive governance not dominated by industry, so that decisions are made in the interests of people and planet, rather than profits. Only two of the schemes in the report — Fairtrade and FSC — are structured in this way.

They also need to strengthen standards on natural ecosystem protection, and build-in transparency and traceability. A good scheme should include maps of certified areas and details of ownership of certified companies, and must also include a strong traceability system that tracks a commodity from where it is grown to the consumer.

Crucially, certification schemes should ensure that their standards are well implemented, and that there are penalties for rule-breakers. None of the certification schemes rated well for implementation, Rosoman says.

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