What 2018 has in store for sustainable palm oil

As the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil continues its work of making sustainable palm oil the global norm, its chief executive officer Darrel Webber talks to Eco-Business about the trends that will shape the organisation’s work this year.

palm oil worker colombia
A worker on a palm oil plantation in Colombia. Colombian palm oil firm Daabon is the first in the world to attain the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil's RSPO Next certification. Image: Solidarity Center, CC BY 2.0

Darrel Webber, chief executive officer of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), heads the industry association’s global effort to break the link between palm oil—an increasingly in-demand commodity—and environmentally and socially devastating consequences such as deforestation, wildlife habit destruction, labour exploitation, and the violation of the rights of indigenous communities in tropical countries.  

This is a big task, overseeing the business practices of companies which demonstrate a varying degree of corporate responsibility, placating critics who say that RSPO’s sustainability standards are too low, and explaining the value of certified sustainable palm oil to increasingly conscious consumers.

Though it seems daunting, Webber finds it helpful to think of these seemingly-competing priorities using an analogy from a far-removed industry: transport. 

“It’s no use buying the perfect car or a shiny Ferrari if only one person can afford to buy it and get around in it,” he tells Eco-Business in a recent interview. “What we need is a bus: it’s ugly and slow, but it brings a lot more people along.”  

So when it comes to making the global palm oil sector more sustainable, rather than a Ferrari-esque set of criteria which prohibit all RSPO members from clearing forests, developing on peatlands—that is, carbon-rich soils that must be drained before they can be cultivated—and impose other strict criteria, “we should go for the product that moves the most people and brings the greatest change,” says Webber. 

This is why RSPO’s work this year is prioritising one principle: being inclusive.  

RSPO’s plans for 2018 build on a milestone 2017, where the first ever RSPO Next—that is, a stricter variation of RSPO rules that prohibit deforestation and peatland development, among other things—was attained by Malaysian firm United Plantations and Colombian company Daabon; and zoos and aquariums all over the world started a movement to educate consumers on sustainable palm oil.

This year, the Kuala Lumpur-headquartered RSPO is looking to engage stakeholders that have to date not been a prominent part of the palm oil conversation.

Here are four things the Kuala Lumpur-headquartered association has in store for this year:  

1. Sustainable smallholders     

RSPO is focusing closely on encouraging sustainable practices among smallholder farmers, who produce about 40 per cent of the global supply of palm oil, as well as growers in countries that have just begun palm oil cultivation—many of them are in South America and Africa. Traditionally, they often suffer from lower productivity and resort to practices such as burning land to clear it, because they cannot afford better alternatives.  

To engage smallholders, RSPO last year unveiled a strategy to include these farmers in the certification system through a variety of approaches including funding support for communities, and providing administrative support to smallholders to complete the certification process.

“The clock has already started ticking for us in 2018,” says Webber. “It will take a few years to completely roll out since there are millions of smallholders and they are everywhere.”

One key ingredient to success is partnerships, says Webber.

“It could be anyone,” he adds. “Technical partners who know about palm oil and agriculture; financial partners who can share the cost burden; or governmental partners who can solve legality issues related to smallholders—anyone interested in changing the lives of smallholders to be more sustainable and successful.” 

2. Veterans and newbies: A fine balance

This year is also a big milestone for RSPO as it prepares to deliver a new, updated set of principles and criteria (P&C) after extensive consultation with its stakeholders. 

First released in 2007, the P&C have been reviewed every five years. A key development in the palm oil sector since the last review in 2013 has been the rise of palm oil cultivation in Africa and South American countries such as Gabon and Ecuador.  

This means that for the first time, the RSPO P&C will need to set strong standards for the relatively mature and sophisticated practices adopted by industry veterans in countries like Malaysia and Indonesia, some of whom have commitments far exceeding RSPO standards, while at the same time providing an accessible starting point for emerging palm oil producer countries. 

“The consultation process is getting more and more challenging, because it touches the lives of more and more people,” says Webber. RSPO conducted one round of consultations last October, and the next round will take place in April. RSPO then has six months to consolidate feedback and finalise the criteria, which must be submitted for endorsement at the next general assembly meeting in November. 

For now, he says that it is too early to know how the P&C will change. The current criteria have been widely criticised in the past for being too lax, because there is no firm clause banning deforestation, peatland development, and the use of hazardous pesticides—though many of these have been addressed in the voluntary, more ambitious RSPO NEXT certification.  

Our priority has always been the same throughout the years: To find new friends to work with, and keep those who are already our friends on board by engaging more and keeping them connected to our work.

Datuk Darrel Webber, chief executive officer, RSPO

But while the outcome of the P&C consultation process is uncertain, one thing is clear: RSPO intends to ensure that its standards are, as Webber puts it, a bus rather than a Ferrari; they must be accessible, and attainable for everyone. 

In fact, this was the key outcome from the association’s 15th annual roundtable meeting, held in Bali last November. Key outcomes from the meeting, which unfortunately coincided with the eruption of volcano Mount Agung, included the launch of RSPO’s 2017 impacts report. This documented a 70 per cent increase in RSPO-certified area in Africa, and an 11 per cent rise in Latin America.  

In Africa, RSPO members also identified 13,405 hectares of new “high conservation value” area—this land cannot be cleared for cultivation—a 4,323 per cent increase from 2016. 

In Latin America, the second largest palm oil producing region in the world after Asia, RSPO has been engaging growers on sustainability through measures such as a regional conference for growers, piloting a ‘jurisdictional approach’ to RSPO certification in Ecuador—whereby entire landscapes are certified, rather than individual plots—and a workshop for growers, government officials, and non-governmental organisers to facilitate this. 

The new P&C will have strong input from these emerging producer markets, says Webber, adding that hot topics in the consultations include issues around deforestation, labour—especially child labour—and social conflict.

“I don’t know for sure if the new criteria is going to be higher or lower, but my personal opinion is that it’s never going to be lower than it is today. There are enough checks and balances in the system to say there are clear minimum requirements.” 

He adds that regardless of the degree to which the criteria become stricter they ultimately remain a floor for the industry, not a ceiling.

“The height of the bar is set by RSPO, but you can certainly jump much higher if you want,” says Webber. “We just say this is the minimum you should clear if you want to perform as a sustainable player.”  

3. Transparency and accountability 

Another area that RSPO expects major progress this year is making information about its social and environmental impact more accessible, shares Webber. 

“RSPO has always been working on transparency, a notable example of which is the online maps of all our members’ concessions,” Webber says. “But being transparent and accessible are two different things,” he adds. 

To make the information on RSPO easier for the general public to understand, RSPO is working on measures such as making its online maps more simple to understand, and presenting the yearly progress updates from members—officially known as ACOPs, or annual communications of progress—more user-friendly.  

4. Techsperiments 

Lastly, Webber also has his eye on emerging technology trends that could have a huge impact on the palm oil industry. From using sensors to monitor conditions on oil palm plantations more closely to harnessing the potential of blockchain to make the notoriously complex palm oil supply chains more transparent, Webber says that “technology will be the key to sustainable palm oil”. 

Driven by the philosophy that it is more important to make it easier for stakeholders to do the right thing than it is to discourage or penalise errant parties, Webber is also keen to explore how Nudge Theory—a behavioural economics principle that explores how to make some decisions intuitive, easy, and effortless for target audiences—can drive change in the palm oil sector. 

Despite their massive potential, these initiatives are still in their infancy, he says. RSPO is working with a consultant to understand how best to apply emerging technologies to its work, and still learning about Nudge Theory. 

But regardless of the new tools or strategies RSPO deploys in its work this year, some things are constant, says Webber. 

As he puts it: “Our priority has always been the same throughout the years: To find new friends to work with, and keep those who are already our friends on board by engaging more and keeping them connected to our work.” 

“We need to live up to our description as a multi-stakeholder initiative,” he adds. RSPO’s renewed focus on smallholders and emerging markets “is us moving in that direction, and keeping true to our core values that we are inclusive and leave no one behind.” 

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