(This interview was originally published in Italian on Conquiste del Lavoro, and has been translated into English.)

Palm oil is the most consumed vegetable fat globally, with an estimated turnover of around US$40 billion. The allegations made against the companies in the industry, however, include deforestation, displacement of local communities, exploitation of workers, and child labour. The industry is still growing, as palm oil is relatively cheap, and used in a wide range of products, from food and cosmetics to cleaning agents and biofuels. Demand for palm oil is increasing, with turnover estimated to reach US$91 billion by 2021. Moreover, countries such as Colombia and Brazil are developing plantations to close the gap between them and Indonesia and Malaysia, the major producers of palm oil responsible for 80 per cent of global supply.

In 2004, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was founded with the goal of creating a more sustainable palm oil industry by bringing together growers, NGOs, and financial institutions. However, some members have not upheld RSPO’s standards, leading some NGOs to raise the alarm and call on RSPO to implement stricter rules to protect the credibility of the certification.

Conquiste del Lavoro interviewed Stefano Savi, RSPO’s Global Outreach and Engagement Director, to better understand the industry’s challenges and the effectiveness of the Roundtable in guaranteeing environmental and socially sustainable production.

RSPO aims for shared responsibility

Amnesty International and the Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO) recently exposed some leaks in the RSPO certification system. What do you think about this?

The RSPO certification standard, as with all certifications, may have leaks. It is important for us to recognise problems and take action. The RSPO system is based not just on certification, but also on engagement with all the players in the supply chain. To say it better, we are not just a certification standard, but we aim to build a shared responsibility on environmental and social issues. Moreover, the RSPO system is not a niche system. We do not work with a small percentage of responsible players, but we always try to widen our perimeter because we want to face and solve the issues. Our goal is to transform the market, not just to mark the players already working in a very good way. The issues that SOMO observed are real and widespread. The goal of the RSPO, which certifies about 20 per cent of the palm oil produced globally, is to improve the situation; that’s why we chose a transparency policy that allows NGOs to verify and publicly expose the problems they detect, and this is demonstrated by the fact that reports about non-certified companies are infrequent.

What happens when verifications reveal that RSPO rules are not respected? According to your information, did Wilmar International Limited (an agribusiness group) indeed ask its workers to sign a clearing document on the company’s practises?

We have a public complaint system that precedes a procedure for solving problems. The author of the complaint is put in contact with the company to find a solution. This has been the case with SOMO, whose report exposed problems in two certified companies.

As soon as the report was made public, contact followed to find solutions, potential further audits aside. RSPO contacted the two companies to implement an action plan. On the 14th and 15th of July, we sent an unannounced audit to the two companies, and we are still waiting to receive a report on the outcomes. As for Wilmar, I spoke with them personally, and they denied any allegation. We are undertaking verifications right now on what happened.

RSPO has deepened ‘social focus’

What happens to non-certified production? Is this exclusive to Asian markets, such as India and China, or is it happening in Europe, as well?

The palm oil supply chain is very complicated, and traceability is not easy. I am not convinced that 100 per cent of the palm oil currently used in Italy is certified sustainable. We have taken big steps forward in the cosmetics and food industries, but the debate in Europe is driven more by replacement than sustainability. This is the major problem we have to face in Europe. Considering its yield, palm oil is not replaceable at the moment, and potential substitutes would come from developing countries, as well. That’s why I think it is necessary to give value to what has been done until now on the sustainability of oil palm cultivation, and to work on improving it further.

You recently announced a partnership with the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef). Would it also be useful to involve trade union organisations and to support local unionisation processes as a further stage of RSPO certification?

This is something we are dealing with locally. We are working with our members, NGOs dealing with social issues and with direct contacts with unions and the RSPO Labor Task Force. It is very difficult to make the standards effective, and for this reason, we have direct contacts who deal with employees’ rights at the local level. We also need to consider that the RSPO is a young association, as the first certified product dates back only to 2009. The initial focus was the environmental issue. The social focus has deepened over the last three years, and we still have a lot of work to do. More collaboration is possible on workers' rights. Unicef is the first step, but we can do more on this side.

Child labour remains a widespread issue even outside palm oil industry

Many companies have been accused of paying workers according to production targets, facilitated through child labour. How do you respond to accusations that many companies are using the RSPO certification as a shield?

RSPO standards do not allow child labour, irregular work, or payment through production targets, but provide for minimum wage and living wage. Of course, we can and we want to improve. We have already demonstrated that every time a problem arises, we are ready to react, verify, and solve the critical issues. Many of these problems, however, are not business-related, but concern the country where the companies operate. Child labour, for example, is widespread in all the industries in many palm oil-producing countries. This is an unimaginable practice for the RSPO, but it is still widespread and cannot be solved with a simple rule.

What about Poligrow, a certified sustainable Colombian company that has been accused of land grabbing using paramilitary forces? Is it possible there are certified companies that have committed similar abuses against the environment and local populations before 2005?

We have an active complaint procedure against Poligrow, and we are providing continuous updates on it through our website. As far as business history is concerned, the RSPO rules have applied since 2005, but it is difficult to understand what has happened before. We undertake verifications, but have to consider that many of the issues we are discussing today were not legally taken into account in the past.

According to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), the equivalent of 300 football fields of rainforest are cleared every hour for oil palm cultivation. What is the RSPO position on deforestation?

Our commitment is to preserve primary and secondary forests. About 110,000 hectares of forests have been preserved by the RSPO, the equivalent of 200,000 football fields. Our companies also commit to save and improve conservation parameters. It is a fact that globalisation has accelerated development processes, often not in a proper way, but we also need the demand’s point of view to be more mature. A demand that calls for sustainability can activate correct processes. On the contrary, if we keep on pushing for lowest prices, issues will probably persist. We must solve these issues globally by improving the quality of the demand, and pushing for more and more sustainable production.


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