If you’re a conscious consumer, you probably aspire to buy products and support brands that represent your values, reduce your carbon footprint, help preserve natural ecosystems, use non-toxic ingredients and ensure fair labour practices. But, educating yourself on sustainable and ethically sourced products isn’t always as clear cut as you might like. The landscape can be confusing. What’s considered sustainable today, may not meet our expectations in the future and there’s A LOT of mixed information and opinions that make getting to the facts challenging. That’s where certification standards and eco-labels can help you out.
Unsustainable palm oil has long been associated with deforestation, and as a result, some consumers believe that avoiding palm oil might be the best way to have a positive impact on the environment. While it may seem simple, switching or boycotting palm oil, or any vegetable oil for that matter, is very complicated and can lead to long-term negative effects. The best way to make a positive impact is to ensure the products you purchase which contain palm oil (or any oil) are produced and sourced sustainably.
The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was set up to develop standards and demand for sustainable palm oil. To do this, RSPO ensures that sustainable palm oil is grown and produced according to a set of stringent environmental and social criteria, known as the RSPO Principles and Criteria, P&C for short. These standards set out rules whereby human, labour and child rights are protected, and also ensure the protection of forests, wildlife habitats and areas of biodiversity.
The RSPO recognises that the definition of sustainability is continually evolving and our approach needs to adapt to meet the real-time needs of our population and our planet. To do that, the RSPO revises its standards every five years, as part of our commitment to continuously improve and to help feed our growing global population.
Where does the palm oil journey start?
The fruit found on oil palms grows in large fresh fruit bunches and can be harvested throughout the year (similar to the coconuts on palm trees). The fruit needs to be processed within 24 hours so that the oil does not degrade. In a palm oil mill, the fruit is pressed and heated to extract palm oil. Palm oil can then be refined to remove the colour and any odour. The refinery may also split the oil into a liquid part and a hard part. The liquid oil can be used as frying oil and the hard fat is used in products like margarine, peanut butter and chocolate spread.
As you can imagine, the journey from the fresh fruit bunches of a small Indonesian family farm to a chocolate spread made in Europe is complicated and can be difficult to trace. That's why the RSPO has developed four different supply chain models, or routes, to trade sustainable palm oil, allowing us to also trace volumes of certified sustainable palm oil (CSPO).
How is sustainable palm oil traded and traced?
RSPO Credits: An RSPO Credit is proof that one tonne of certified palm oil was produced by an RSPO certified company or independent producer and has entered the global palm oil supply chain. A consumer goods manufacturer or retailer buys RSPO Credits directly from the mill or from an independent small-scale farmer. RSPO Credits are effectively an offset mechanism, which serves as a valuable stepping stone or entry point for newcomers to sustainable supply chains.
Mass Balance: Mills can source fresh fruit bunches from RSPO certified plantations and uncertified plantations. The Mass Balance supply chain allows for the fresh fruit, and the oil produced, to be mixed during processing, but importantly, only the volume that came from certified plantations can be sold as sustainable. This mechanism allows mills with limited access to fruits from certified plantations to have enough fruit to run efficiently. Mixing of certified sustainable and uncertified palm oil might also occur later in the supply chain, for example to fill a compartment of a shipping vessel without wasting space. The same rule applies here, only the volume of certified sustainable palm oil that is used to create this mix, can be sold as sustainable. RSPO tracks these volumes via an online trading platform to ensure there are no false sustainability claims.
Segregated: Palm oil which is certified as sustainable on the segregated supply model, might come from different RSPO certified mills and plantations, but it is always kept separate from uncertified palm oil.
Identity Preserved: Sustainable palm oil comes from one certified mill with its plantations and is kept separate from certified and uncertified palm oil from other mills. Although the material is traceable to one mill with its supply base, this is not the most optimal model in terms of logistics and processing.
Starting the sustainable journey for crops like palm is complex for everyone involved in the supply chain, from small family farms to manufacturers of your favourite products. RSPO works with independent auditors, grass-roots organisations and NGOs to monitor and educate all supply chain actors on our standards, sustainable farming practices and the necessary training.
What can we do?
As a globally traded commodity, which means traded in current and future sales, palm oil will continue to be generated to meet our growing demands. It’s therefore essential that we convert this demand from conventional to sustainable palm oil.
Consumers can look for the RSPO Trademark on product labels and packaging, and have the assurance that the manufacturer has used or supported the production of sustainable palm oil. When there is no RSPO Trademark, this doesn’t automatically mean that the palm oil listed in the ingredients list is unsustainable. Many manufacturers source certified sustainable palm oil, especially in Europe and North America, but do not dedicate the space on the packaging to communicate about it.