On Thursday, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) announced it has taken action against members that are not fulfilling basic membership obligations intended to create a more transparent, environmentally sustainable and socially responsible palm oil industry. A number of prominent NGOs working in the field — including World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and Rainforest Action Network (RAN) — commend the action as an important first step, but emphasize the Roundtable's need for more teeth in ensuring progress toward a truly sustainable palm oil industry.
The RSPO expelled 15 companies and organizations that have failed for three consecutive years to submit the required annual reports on their progress towards certifying palm oil operations or purchasing certified sustainable palm oil. A further 62 have had their memberships suspended for failing to submit reports for two consecutive years.
Most of the terminated members are small palm oil processors or traders; three are consumer goods manufacturers in France. Suspended members include companies ranging from the Pesticide Action Network (PAN) Asia and the Pacific (an NGO), to consumer goods companies including food giant Hain Celestial and “sustainable” cleaning and skincare company Seventh Generation. But RSPO said some of the terminated and suspended members may not be in compliance because they've ceased operations or no longer source palm oil. For example, the membership of Asian Plantation Ltd, a palm oil producer that no longer exists after it was acquired by Malaysian Felda Global Ventures last year, was on the suspended list.
WWF, a founder of the initiative, applauds RSPO’s cleaning house.
“We hope that this is a sign that the RSPO and its membership are now taking seriously not only the need to report progress but also to show progress,” Adam Harrison, WWF’s lead on palm oil, said in a statement. “The duty to continuously improve performance is central to the founding vision of the RSPO and this applies not only to the organization as a whole but more importantly to its individual members.”
In 2013, WWF released analysis of RSPO member producers were making adequate progress towards the goal of becoming 100 percent sustainable. The analysis found 70 percent of the growers in the RSPO submitted reports but only 58 percent disclosed the extent of the estates they manage. Of the 92 growers in the RSPO, 53 released how much crude palm oil they produce and only 38 percent was certified as sustainable. WWF says it is urging RSPO to continue to push its membership to deliver on their commitments and will continue to track the progress of individual companies in relation to their production and use of sustainable palm oil.
“WWF remains concerned that, according to the RSPO itself, only 57 of the 119 registered growers in the RSPO have any certified mills. That leaves more than half of them making no progress on their commitments,” Harrison said. ''Additionally, only a little over two-thirds of the 1500 RSPO supply chain member companies are currently certified to actually use CSPO.
“While some leading members of the RSPO are doing well and delivering on their promises, too many are still doing nothing. The RSPO needs to go beyond disciplining non-reporting members and now find ways to make sure all members are taking action to transform the industry.”
RAN shares WWF's concerns.
"As I understand it, the members the RSPO has just purged are those that have been entirely delinquent in issuing reports for years at a time," Laurel Sutherlin, RAN's Senior Communications Strategist, told Sustainable Brands. "Of course that is a step in the right direction, but what is badly needed now is greater accountability and enforcement of remaining members to ensure that they demonstrate verifiable progress towards addressing the urgent environmental and human rights abuses still common among RSPO member companies."
UCS' Calen May-Tobin concurred: "I think that this step by the RSPO is a positive one. When companies join the RSPO they make a commitment to report on their progress every year. Commitments are great, commitments are easy. The challenge comes in implementing those commitments and if a company can’t even take the small step of reporting, which is the easiest step to implement, there should be ramifications," Tobin, lead analyst of UCS' palm oil campaign, told SB. "But reporting is just the start. I’d love to see the RSPO go further and put pressure on companies that aren’t meeting their sourcing commitments. Holding companies responsible for their practices and what they put in their products would put some real bite into an organization that has been accused of lacking teeth. But for now, it’s nice that the RSPO is at least teething."
In the last two years, dozens of major consumer brands and their suppliers have committed to ensuring the sustainability of their palm oil supply chains, but for those relying on RSPO certification to help ensure responsible sourcing, standards and enforcement must be strong enough to hold all parties up to code.