Sustainable Palm Oil

I found the final part of the Environment and Ecological Management class particularly interesting.  This session covered the topic of certification schemes and how they are used to monitor and layout standards to ensure sustainability in various industries. I was particularly surprised at the number of certifications available and the scope which is covered.

I was interested to learn about the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) and how this association has been established in order to stop the environmental damage of palm oil.  It would however seem there is still a long road ahead before the principles set by RSPO become adopted into the mainstream.

Palm Oil Background

The debate surrounding palm oil has been widely discussed in the media over recent years.  Palm oil is widely used within the food and energy industries. While many people are unaware of this, palm oil is a key ingredient in foodstuffs varying from chocolates, biscuits and, cereals to being a key element in  soap, shampoo as well as in bio-fuel.  In 2006, palm oil accounted for 56% of worldwide oil and fat exports. Palm is oil is so intensively produced for a number of reasons:

  1. It has the highest yield of any vegetable oil crop

  2. It is cheap to produce and refine

  3. It is a highly versatile oil

  4. It’s high melting point means that it is smooth in consistency and is easy to spread.

Malaysia and Indonesia produce the majority the world’s palm oil, accounting for approximately 86% of the total production.

Palm Oil Debate

Palms require a rainforest climate in which to grow.  In Indonesia and Malaysia huge swathes of land have been cleared to make space for palm oil plantations.  Species such as orangutans are threatened with extinction as deforestation is leading to a loss of their habitats.  Palm oil farms have tripled since 1990. An area of 26 million hectares has been projected to be cleared for palm oil plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia by 2025.

The sustainability of palm oil plantations has been raised in recent years. Deforestation not only has huge consequences on an area’s biodiversity, it can also cause soil degradation and land rights issues for local and indigenous communities.



Increased awareness surrounding the effects of palm oil plantations has led to calls for more regulation in the palm oil  industry.  RSPO was established in 2003.  It uses a business-to-business model to promote the uptake of sustainable palm oil with producers, suppliers and consumers.

In order to become certified, producers need to prove that no primary forests  or areas of cultural biological importance have been cleared.  Furthermore the certification also ensures that working conditions and pay of farmers and workers involved in the production are monitored.


Challenges facing RSPO

It would appear however that progress is slow. Sustainable palm oil currently only makes up 15% of the market. As a multi-stakeholder model, progress is slow as parties are required to agree in order for resolutions to be made. Similarly major food producers have been slow to incorporate certified products, particularly in key North American and Chinese markets where demand for sustainable palm oil is low.  The price of the sustainable product is inevitably higher and therefore plays a key role.

As consumers become more aware of the ethical benefits of sustainable palm oil, I am sure that demand will increase and therefore put pressure on producers.  Large retailers such as Carrefour’s support to the RSPO as well as Unilever’s recent commitment to using traceable palm oil sources are great examples of this.  Ultimately in order to ensure a sustained growth in sustainable palm oil production vs non certified palm oil, stricter national and international legislation will be required.



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