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PepsiCo, Walmart, investors call for stronger palm oil standard

Forest cleared for an oil palm plantation in Sarawak, Malaysia
Forest cleared for an oil palm plantation in Sarawak, Malaysia. Photos by Rhett A. Butler.

Major global brands and a network of activist investors have joined together to call on the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) to adopt stronger criteria to eliminate deforestation from palm oil supply chains.

The call, put out Monday in the form of a letter, says the world’s leading palm oil certification standard “does not sufficiently address critical sustainability concerns in the palm oil supply chain”.

“Companies that purchase palm oil certified by the RSPO do so out of concern that conventional palm oil production is too often associated with adverse environmental and social impacts,” states the letter, which was organized by the Office of New York State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, Green Century Capital Management, and Ceres. “Unfortunately, the RSPO currently does not include protections for some of the most critical externalities of palm oil production, such as conversion of High Carbon Stock forests and expansion on peatlands, nor provide sufficient assurance that its standards are being complied with.”

The letter goes on to state that many companies are now moving beyond the RSPO by adopting stricter standards to ensure their supply chains aren’t associated with deforestation or human rights abuses. It urges the RSPO to accelerate the adoption of stronger criteria.

“Expectations for sustainable palm oil production have evolved rapidly with growing recognition of the sustainability challenges facing the industry,” the letter states. “It would be inconsistent with the imperative of addressing deforestation, peatland conversion, and human rights violations swiftly and efficiently for the RSPO to wait until 2018—as the current timeline suggests—to finalize changes to the Principles & Criteria (P&C) to address these issues.”

The letter specifically calls on the RSPO to address conservation of high carbon stock areas, including peatlands; implement greater traceability; mandate greenhouse gas accounting; and strengthen auditing and enforcement; and improve the rigor of conservation and social impact assessments.

The letter comes less than a month after the RSPO announced RSPO+, a new set of voluntary guidelines “aimed at further enhancing the existing standard’s requirements on issues such as Deforestation, Peatland Development and Indigenous Peoples rights.” The RSPO will present those guidelines to its board later this month.

“The voluntary addendum will provide clear implementation guidelines and, in compliance with RSPO commitment to full transparency, inclusivity and neutrality will be assessed by third party accredited auditors in order to provide the necessary level of assurance demanded by stakeholders,” said the RSPO in a statement at the time of the announcement. “This action by the RSPO reflects the growing concerns with these issues and extensive discussions within the RSPO on how best to integrate these within the existing standard. It aims at fulfilling the current market and society demands for stronger sustainability requirements, while maintaining the inclusivity of the standard, in its vision of 100% market transformation.”

The letter, which is signed by five of the world’s largest palm oil buyers — Procter & Gamble, PepsiCo, Colgate-Palmolive, Kao, and Johnson & Johnson — as well as other corporate giants like Albertsons-Safeway, ConAgra, Coop Switzerland, Dunkin’ Brands, General Mills, Mars, Inc., Seventh Generation, Starbucks, The Kellogg Company, and Walmart will certainly add further urgency to that initiative, which Lucia von Reusner, shareholder advocate at Green Century Capital Management, calls “important”.

“The recently announced RSPO+ initiative is an important step that demonstrates the organization’s attentiveness to the concerns we raise in this letter and ability to innovate in response to evolving expectations,” von Reusner told Mongabay. “However, these standards ultimately need to be incorporated into the core P&C applicable to all member companies, in order for the RSPO to avoid confusion and logistical complexity in the marketplace and supply chain. We hope this letter provides evidence of strong and ongoing support for the RSPO to make explicit that having these best practices applicable to all members is its ultimate goal. ”

Fragment of rainforest in a sea of palm oil in Sarawak.

While pressure on the RSPO has been building for years, it has accelerated since December 2013 with the rapid adoption of “zero deforestation” commitments by a number of prominent palm oil consumers, traders, and producers. But as a membership organization, the RSPO is slowed by the need to build consensus among its diverse body of stakeholders. For example, social and environmental safeguards pushed by environmental, conservation, and human rights members are often opposed by producer members. Nonetheless the RSPO remains the dominant standard and an important forum for discussion of palm oil-related issues, which makes it a high priority for reformers.

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