The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) has released new voluntary criteria that expand on its existing Principles & Criteria (P&C) for sustainable palm oil production. To be eligible for the add-on certification, called RSPO NEXT, RSPO members must have at least 60 percent of their plantations in compliance with the core RSPO P&C requirements, have company-wide policies that exceed current RSPO P&C requirements, and must commit to implementing the stricter RSPO NEXT policies across all of their plantations.
The RSPO NEXT policies were designed to reduce deforestation and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from palm oil production and strengthen human rights commitments, following a process that involved a 60-day public consultation with RSPO members and external stakeholders, in compliance with ISEAL best practices. The policies include:
- No deforestation. Companies must introduce a broader no-deforestation policy that exceeds the existing requirements under RSPO P&C and New Planting Procedures (which only ban the cutting of primary forests or those considered to be of high conservation value). Palm oil growers will only be able to develop plantations in areas where vegetation and soil contain low stocks of carbon, where limited CO2 emissions will be caused by any form of forest conversion.
- No planting on peatland. While the RSPO P&C recommends palm oil growers should avoid planting on peatland, RSPO NEXT bans any new development on peatland.
- No fire. The RSPO P&C requirements include a ban on using fire to clear land. Under RSPO NEXT, companies must also have plans and procedures to prevent, monitor and combat fire on plantations and around their estates.
- Reduction of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Building on the existing RSPO P&C requirement to minimise GHG emission from new plantations, RSPO NEXT requires palm oil growers to monitor, manage and reduce GHG emissions across their entire operations (including mills and other facilities) and publicly report their status and progress.
- Respect for smallholders’ and workers’ rights. If there is no national definition of a Decent Living Wage in a given country, palm oil growers must engage with their workers to mutually agree terms to obtain the RSPO NEXT certification, in addition to meeting the broader human rights criteria under RSPO P&C. Growers will also be required to “develop outreach programmes to support smallholders with sustainability and business skills.”
- No use of Paraquat. Paraquat, a pesticide banned in the European Union (EU), is forbidden under RSPO NEXT.
- Enhanced transparency and traceability. RSPO NEXT requires that palm oil can be traced back to the plantation where it was produced.
Palm oil buyers may claim their commitment to RSPO Next through a system of credit purchases. The credits will only be available to buyers that are already purchasing 100 percent certified sustainable palm oil through supply chain models such as Book and Claim, Mass Balance, Segregation, or Identity Preserved (these models are explained by the RSPO here).
“By creating RSPO NEXT we respond to a request from some of our members to provide continuous improvements within the RSPO framework for those ready and able to go further on their sustainability commitments,” Datuk Darrel Webber, the CEO of the RSPO, said. “RSPO NEXT is an important milestone and can become a new industry benchmark for others who are working hard towards our common goal of 100% Certified Sustainable Palm Oil.”
The RSPO expects that incorporating these add-on and voluntary criteria will provide assurance to palm oil growers’ stakeholders that their advanced compliance has been independently verified by accredited certification bodies.
However, some are concerned that these new requirements will create a two-tier system that is inaccessible to smaller companies, and that issues with certification bodies will continue.
“You don’t want to make it so complicated that only companies like ours that can afford to pay people like me to look at it can understand the system … If you’re going to change the market you’ve got to get everybody on the market, not just the big companies,” Andrew Jenkins, a sustainability manager at Boots, told The Guardian.
Tomasz Johnson, a former Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) forests campaigner, authored a recent EIA report that claims companies auditing RSPO-certified plantations were failing to identify violations and in some cases were deliberately colluding with plantations to disguise violations.
“If the system doesn’t work it doesn’t matter how good or bad the standards are … It could be mitigating the impact of the industry quite significantly if it was implemented, but what we see is that it’s not being implemented by a lot of companies,” Johnson told The Guardian.
However, both Jenkins and Johnson admit that the RSPO has little alternative. “[The] RSPO doesn’t work right now, it doesn’t go far enough, but if it wasn’t around we’d probably have to reinvent it,” Johnson said.
“They are stuck between a rock and a hard place on this one,” Jenkins said. “If they tried to rebuild the entire system it would take years and nothing would happen.”