Sustainable palm oil is a very important topic – more than most of us realise. So what is GreenPalm and is it effective?
You’ve probably consumed palm oil at some point today. It’s used in many processed food items and personal care products such as soap and shampoos.
Palm oil is not always indicated on ingredient lists – it may be simply referred to as “vegetable oil”. To make matters more confusing, other ingredients can be derived from palm oil; such as Cetyl Alcohol, Glycerol Stearate and Sodium Kernelate.
Indonesia is by far the largest producer of palm oil. It’s estimated the country produced 28 million tonnes of palm oil in 2012. Malaysia is also a significant producer; cranking out around 19 million tonnes in 2012.
A major concern with regard to the production of palm oil is the environmental cost. For example, rainforests have been razed in Borneo and Sumatra to clear the way for palm oil plantations. Aside from increasing carbon emissions through the burning, it has had a significant impact on many species including the critically endangered orangutan; which has lost over 90% of its habitat in the last two decades.
The issue of palm oil gained additional focus in June 2013 after air pollution hit a record high in Singapore; to the point it endangered the lives of the old and ill. The major cause of the event was the burning of peatlands on Sumatra to make way for farmland.
So what is being done to address the many issues surrounding palm oil?
Probably the biggest initiative is GreenPalm; which is a certificate trading programme based on Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) certification.
About RSPO certification
The RSPO was established in 2004 to promote the production of sustainable palm oil. The RSPO Principles and Criteria for Sustainable Palm Oil Production are the global guidelines for producing palm oil sustainably.
RSPO certified operations must commit to and observe 8 basic principles:
1 – Commitment to transparency
2 – Compliance with applicable laws and regulations
3 – Commitment to long-term economic and financial viability
4 – Use of appropriate best practices by growers and millers
5 – Environmental responsibility and conservation of natural resources and biodiversity
6 – Responsible consideration of employees and of individuals and communities affected by growers and mills
7 – Responsible development of new plantings
8 – Commitment to continuous improvement in key areas of activity
Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO) must be grown on plantations established on land that was not deforested after 2005.
The RSPO says all certified oil is fully traceable through the supply chain. The organisation’s members produce about 40% of the world’s palm oil and are processors or users of more than 30%.
However, RSPO isn’t just an old boys club of industry – there is also some input and oversight from NGO’s to allow for increased transparency.
As of the end of 2012, RSPO certified plantations covered an area 22 times the size of Singapore island and around 14% of the world’s palm oil is now RSPO certified – a massive jump in just a few years.
While the growth of CSPO is impressive, the majority of the world’s supply is still non-certified and rainforest continues to be cleared at an alarming pace.
How GreenPalm works.
With so many producers – both RSPO certified and non-certified – one of the challenges is that a tanker-load of oil will have come from different plantations, mills or even countries; making it difficult for palm oil purchasers to gauge the provenance of the product. While splitting up certified and non-certified product can be done, it adds costs at multiple stages.
However, RSPO certified producers can register X output of their product with the GreenPalm program. For each tonne of certified palm oil, the producer is given one GreenPalm certificate.
Those certificates can then be sold via the GreenPalm online trading platform to companies such as food producers. The price of a certificate is a premium above the cost of non-certified oil. The additional cost isn’t huge – less than 1%.
A producer can buy X tonnage in certificates equivalent to what they use in production of their food items; or part thereof.
So, while the actual oil the food company is using may not be RSPO certified; they have paid for certified oil – which is being used somewhere.
The idea is that producers can make more money through having a certified product and manufacturers can promote their support of sustainable palm oil; which can have a positive effect on consumers, resulting in more sales.
Whether RSPO certification and GreenPalm has been effective or not will depend on who you ask. Some have accused the organisation of being a greenwashing front due to perceived low standards and lack of regulations. However, at the moment it appears to be the best of a bad situation.
So what’s a consumer to do?
Given the current circumstances and how difficult it is for most people to avoid palm oil, the best thing we can all do is to let companies know we are concerned and demand answers.
In my 2007 article on palm oil, included is some sample text that can be used in an email to companies asking about the provenance of their palm oil and registering concern with regard to sustainability. Yes, it does seem to be just ‘keyboard warrior’ stuff, but it’s the pressure from consumers on companies that has forced some of them to examine their palm oil supply chains and make the shift to RSPO certified oil.
… in the meantime; Sumatra burns, the people of Singapore choke on the smoke and many species are threatened; but the hope is increased RSPO/CSPO certification will at least buy a bit of time to come up with better solutions.
For more information regarding issues surrounding palm oil, visit Say No To (Unsustainable) Palm Oil – it’s an impressive site; particularly given the person behind it – Thomas, a 17 year-old Australian. Far from being a keyboard warrior, Thomas has visited Borneo twice and has seen the destruction first-hand.