Conventional oil palm cultivation has been perceived by many to be responsible for large-scale conversion of equatorial forests, causing extensive carbon emissions, and contributing to global warming. In Southeast Asia, the palm oil industry has been consistently blamed for rampant deforestation and the annual haze crisis.

Palm oil is undeniably everywhere. For consumers, palm oil is in close to half of all packaged products that we buy in the supermarket. From biscuits and ice cream, to butter and spreads, palm oil is even in beauty and body products like lipsticks and shampoos.  Recognised as one of the super oil crops, palm oil and its products are nearly impossible to avoid, but should we be staying away from it?  The real question seems to be: can we still use palm oil products mindfully and responsibly?  In essence, can we still have our cake and eat it?

Growers, traders, manufacturers and retailers have been encouraged to be members of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), and to be certified under their Principles and Criteria (P&C) initiative to ensure that commodities are produced without causing environmental or social harm. The RSPO certification is an assurance that the standard of palm oil production is sustainable.

However, there have been concerns that the current RSPO standard does not adequately address all environmental and social issues. Currently, the P&C allow room for interpretation using a list of requirements of best practices. So this is where RSPO NEXT steps in; RSPO NEXT is the next phase on the journey to enhance palm oil sustainability that is aimed at building on RSPO P&C’s strengths.

The RSPO NEXT initiative addresses core concerns about palm oil production and its linkages to the unacceptable impact caused by irresponsible deforestation. It implements a set of indicators that members need to meet on top of the existing RSPO certification in order to effectively cut the link between their production of palm oil and climate conflict. This includes having a strong position on no deforestation.

In addition to adhering to RSPO P&C, palm oil growers will have to introduce a broader no-deforestation policy. This policy will allow companies to develop a palm oil plantation only in areas where vegetation and soil contain low stocks of carbon, thereby limiting carbon dioxide emissions caused by any form of forest conversion.

Other indicators included in the RSPO NEXT framework are: no use of fire; no use of the Paraquat pesticide; no planting on peat; reducing greenhouse gas emissions; respecting human rights; and ensuring transparency and due diligence in sourcing from independent suppliers.

“The mission of the RSPO is to transform the entire sector towards sustainable practices. Therefore, we need to make tools available to frontrunners, early adopters and later adopters in the sector. RSPO NEXT provides a tool to the more progressive producers, buyers and investors who have committed to no deforestation, no peat and no exploitation,” said activist Johan Verburg, Oxfam Novib’s private sector coordinator.

He added: “RSPO NEXT can provide an independent check on the effective implementation of these policies. Others will see this makes sustainable business sense. Today’s best practices may become tomorrow’s norm.”

RSPO NEXT would not be a stand-alone standard but would build on the existing P&Cs, on a voluntary basis. 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 certified sustainable palm oil from RSPO NEXT verified companies.

According to RSPO NEXT consultant and coordinator, Liza Murphy, the standardisation that both RSPO and RSPO NEXT bring will benefit everyone, including small and mid-cap companies significantly.

“Smallholders are vitally important to the RSPO and ensuring that they have access to markets for sustainably produced palm oil is one of our goals.  It's for this reason that we have worked to ensure the RSPO NEXT initiative is smallholders inclusive,” explained Murphy, who is also director of Are We There Yet? a consultancy that works on building credible systems and supply chains.

While not all of the current RSPO members will be ready to go as far as RSPO NEXT, this does not discount the need for RSPO NEXT to reach out to the innovators to demonstrate what they still need to do. Nor does RSPO NEXT eliminate the need for many members to achieve RSPO P&C certification. Sustainability is not a fixed state but a journey:  the RSPO P&Cs make up one phase in that journey and RSPO NEXT is the following stage.

Palm oil buyers that want to affirm their commitment to RSPO NEXT can do so through a system of RSPO NEXT credit purchases. The credits will be available only to those buyers that are already buying 100% certified sustainable palm oil through other supply chain systems (Book & Claim, Mass Balance, Segregated or Identity Preserved).

At the core of the RSPO is a conscious and ethical third party verification of sustainable production practices based on reliable standards. Unlike many other initiatives, it does not rely on words, promises and good intentions of companies or their consultants; 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.

RSPO is more than just a certificate provider. It is 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 and credible way for companies to demonstrate that they are improving. Acting as a broker, RSPO also resolves 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.

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