RSPO Next: the Next Step for Sustainable Palm Oil?

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On August 6th the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) launched a two month public consultation on its proposal for a voluntary add-on standard, RSPO Next, which aims to draw on the strengths and breadth of the RSPO to help companies deliver on their ‘no-deforestation’ commitments. If successfully adopted by the RSPO, WWF believes RSPO Next would be the most practical, robust and transparent way a company can prove it is eliminating unacceptable deforestation from its palm oil supply chain.

Harvesting oil palm, Sumatra, Indonesia.     © James Morgan / WWFHarvesting oil palm, Sumatra, Indonesia.                                                                            © James Morgan / WWF

For several years, a plethora of individual and group policies, company commitments and initiatives have been vying to stake their claims to deliver ‘no deforestation’.  These commitments have been made in part because of concerns that the current RSPO standard, i.e. the Principles & Criteria (P&Cs), does not adequately address all the environmental and social issues.  Currently, the P&Cs leave too much to interpretation and fail to fully define all the requirements of best practice.  WWF shares those concerns and has welcomed many of these individual initiatives with the caveat that most have weaknesses such as a lack of transparency and no credible third party verification systems.   WWF has urged the initiatives to address these gaps and to make sure they build on the best of the RSPO instead of undermining it.

RSPO Next could, we believe, be exactly that – the “next” step on the journey to palm oil sustainability and one that would build on the RSPO’s strengths and as well as the innovations of leading companies.   RSPO Next has learned from the best of the other initiatives — including the Palm Oil Innovation Group (POIG) — in order to set forth a new set of best practices that its membership can be consistently and independently measured against.

The RSPO Next proposal covers the core concerns around palm oil production and its link to the unacceptable impacts of irresponsible deforestation. These include the use of High Carbon Stock (HCS) approaches, no use of fire, no planting on peat, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, respecting human rights and ensuring transparency and due diligence in sourcing from independent suppliers.  The proposal turns the best practice guidance in the P&Cs, as well as the best approaches from individual company initiatives, into a set of indicators that members would need to achieve on top of RSPO certification in order to effectively cut the link between their production of palm oil and unacceptable deforestation, climate emissions and conflict.  Most importantly it would do that in a way that allows progress to be compared directly between different companies.

At the core of the RSPO is independent third party verification of sustainable production practices based on a robust and comprehensive standard.  Unlike many other initiatives, it does not rely on words, promises and good intentions of companies or their consultants.  Rather it measures all its members against the same standard so that all stakeholders can know what each is doing – rather than allowing them to pick and choose their own version of sustainability.

Aerial view of oil palm plantation, Malaysia.  © Laman/WWFAerial view of oil palm plantation, Malaysia. © Laman/WWF

RSPO Next would not be a stand-alone standard but would build on the existing P&Cs.  This means that any company that seeks RSPO Next verification would already have to be certified according to the P&Cs.  Under this system, consumer brands that want to source from the best palm oil producers would be able to buy CSPO from RSPO Next verified companies. WWF believes re-creating the supply chain controls and systems that the RSPO already has established for CSPO makes little sense, as it would add more layers of complexity to an already overly complex oil palm supply chain. With its well established independently accredited third party verification systems and over 10 years of experience engaging with most of the biggest players in the industry as well as massive networks of smallholders, the RSPO is the only organisation big enough to have a realistic chance to transform all of the global palm oil industry as urgently as is needed.

But the RSPO is more than just a standard. It is also an evolving multi-stakeholder body that allows the industry to learn from its innovators.  It is a place for the industry to be honest and transparent about its achievements and its failings.  It provides an independent credible way for companies to demonstrate that they are improving.  And it acts as a broker to resolve some of the most contentious and difficult conflicts facing its members.  And it does all that for a large proportion of the global industry from investors all along the value chain to retailers.

In all of these areas the RSPO can and must improve its performance and must challenge its members to improve as well.  And it is doing just that.  It has substantially overhauled its complaints procedures, putting them on a much firmer and more independent footing so that it reaches decisions more quickly and efficiently.  It is also cracking down on its members who are not delivering on their promises to improve.  In the last year we have seen errant members suspended and terminated for not reporting progress and for not disclosing when they broke fundamental RSPO rules on land clearing.

At the end of the day, support for RSPO Next would not mean abandoning support for the Principles & Criteria.  After all, there would not be a proposal for an RSPO Next if we did not already have the RSPO P&Cs. Similarly, there would not be the POIG Charter, the no-deforestation commitment from Wilmar nor the Sustainable Palm Oil Manifesto if there hadn’t been the last 10 years of hard work, pioneering and consensus building in the RSPO.

In 2012, when the RSPO reviewed its original standard, not all of its membership was ready to take the P&Cs as far as they needed to go.  And if accepted not all of the current RSPO membership will be ready to go as far as RSPO Next.  But that does not undermine the need for RSPO Next to stretch the innovators and show what they need to do. Nor does RSPO Next eliminate the need for many members to still achieve RSPO P&C certification.  Sustainability is not a fixed state but a journey.  The RSPO P&Cs are one step on that journey and RSPO Next is the next step.

The consultation that has just been launched covers the content of RSPO Next.  Just as important are the decisions the RSPO will make on how the scheme will work.  To credibly prove that a company is delivering ‘no deforestation,’ RSPO Next would have to be verified not only across its own operations but also in the ones it invests in and even all of the suppliers it buys fruit from.   And to be credible to stakeholders, RSPO Next verification can only apply to operations that are already RSPO certified.  RSPO Next can only work if all these mechanisms are in place.

So, the immediate challenge to all stakeholders who are serious about changing the palm oil industry is to engage constructively in the debate around the content and implementation of RSPO Next and help to make it the success it needs to be.  WWF asks them to support the RSPO and those innovative members who want to progress by engaging in the consultation process.

Adam Harrison is WWF’s Palm Oil Lead

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