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Australian retailers accused of misusing the RSPO’s label on their palm oil products

An oil palm canopy in Indonesia, the world's top producer. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

  • Major retailers Woolworths and Coles say their own-brand products have been “certified sustainable” by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil.
  • However, Palm Oil Investigations, an Australian NGO, has called the legitimacy of those claims into question.
  • The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil has yet to act on the allegations. A spokesperson pointed out that no one had raised a formal complaint.
  • The NGO says the roundtable must do a better job monitoring the claims of its members.

Two of Australia’s biggest retailers have been misleading customers with claims that palm oil used in their own-brand products has been certified by the world’s largest association for ethical production of the commodity, an NGO has alleged.

According to Australia-based Palm Oil Investigations, retailers Woolworths and Coles are bypassing standards set by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) that would allow them to describe products containing the ingredient as sustainable.

The allegations come in stark contrast to the reputations of the brands, which are widely seen as leading forces for reform in an industry marred by widespread allegations of environmental and human rights violations as it has rapidly expanded in countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia.

Both retailers were awarded full marks this year on the World Wildlife Fund’s Palm Oil Buyers Scorecard, which ranks companies on how responsibly they source palm oil – an ingredient said to be included in some 50 percent of consumer goods.

Their reputations have been built largely on their commitment to selling only own-brand products certified by the RSPO, which are supposed to be free of any link to practices forbidden by the body, such as the clearance of primary forests and deep peatlands, land grabbing and labor abuses.

An oil palm plantation in Indonesia burns. Photo by Rhett A. Butler
An oil palm plantation in Indonesia burns. The industry’s expansion into the archipelago country’s vast peat swamp regions, where land less likely to be claimed by local communities, has fueled the annual forest fires which each year blanket Southeast Asia in a pall of smoke. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

In its most recent progress report, Coles says that since 2015 all of its own-brand food and drink products have contained RSPO-certified palm oil.

Woolworths, meanwhile, says it is striving to use only RSPO-certified palm oil in own-brand products by 2020, while on its website the retailer claims to already be sourcing “100% RSPO certified Own Brand products.”

However, POI says that there is little to back up the retailers’ public commitments to sustainability.

According to POI founder Lorinda Jane, both Coles and Woolworths – who use contracted manufacturers for the majority of their own-brand products – do not require all elements of the supply chain to be certified, and are bypassing official RSPO-approved audits, instead self auditing or using auditors not approved by the body.

“There is no chain of custody to back up these claims,” said Jane.

“These supermarkets can point to the link to certified palm oil but since the chain of certification does not extend all the way to the product they are buying it is highly questionable and possibly illegal for them to make any claims at all that the products contain ‘certified sustainable palm oil’,” she added.

Jane also noted that it is common for RSPO certificates to be shared and sold across a supply chain, allowing manufacturers to claim ownership of certificates that weren’t awarded to them.

It’s “a bit like claiming to be a qualified teacher because your mom was. To us this is not good enough,” she said.

Oil palm fruit on a plantation in Aceh, Indonesia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay
Oil palm fruit on a plantation in Aceh, Indonesia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

The RSPO Rules on Market Communications and Claims details the criteria members need to meet before describing their products as having been certified by the body.

The rules state that members “must not make any statement that may lead consumers to believe that RSPO membership by itself implies the selling of RSPO certified oil palm products,” and must not “mislead consumers or other stakeholders as to the certified content of oil palm products.”

It is also noted that, regardless of whether the RSPO itself is referenced, sustainability claims must be “accurate” and “verifiable.”

While neither Coles nor Woolworths answered specific questions, both retailers dismissed allegations that they were making false claims of certification, and insisted in a general way that they were complying with RSPO rules.

In a statement to Mongabay, a Coles spokesperson said the retailer was “very pleased to confirm that all palm oil used in Coles Brand food and drink products is 100% Certified Sustainable Palm Oil.”

A Woolworths spokesperson said palm oil used in own-brand products “is certified sustainable under RSPO’s certification requirements,” adding that a third-party audit had been carried out by Deloitte, which confirmed the claims of certification.

However, POI noted that Deloitte is not listed by the RSPO as an approved auditor.

Jane of POI said that it is the responsibility of the RSPO to better monitor claims being made by its members.

“It’s not that hard. We do it. Consumers do it. But the RSPO fail to do it and currently rely on others, be it consumers or POI, to bring it to their attention.”  

Aceh palm oil fruit
Oil palm fruit in Indonesia’s westernmost Aceh province. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

RSPO communications manager Letchumi Achanah confirmed that an RSPO-approved audit is required of manufacturers for palm oil to be certified by the body.

She added that any members found not to be meeting the RSPO’s standards would face consequences.

“RSPO members who are proved to make false or misleading claims, and fail to address this, will face sanction from the RSPO, such as losing their certification or membership status,” she told Mongabay.

But, she added, no complaint has been formally raised against Woolworths or Coles.

Meanwhile, Jane warned that a lack of action is leaving consumers in the dark.

“Coles and Woolworths are just one example of this issue, however they are the largest retailers within Australia and pride themselves as leaders of sustainably sourced ingredients,” she said.

“As this is a common problem, consumers are unable to trust what is being put to them due to the massive number of false claims being made by both RSPO members and non-members. So who can they trust?”

A previous version of this article incorrectly identified Woolworths, the Australian retailer, as a member of the RSPO’s complaints panel. There is a Woolworths on the panel, but it is a different Woolworths.

A previous version of this article implied in a summary sentence that the RSPO was unaware of the existence of the allegations against Woolworths and Coles, when what was meant to be said was that the RSPO was unaware of the the details of the allegations, because no formal complaint had been raised and the RSPO had therefore not looked into them. This was judging from the communications manager Letchumi Achanah’s comments to Mongabay. RSPO communications chief Stefano Savi has since written to Mongabay that the RSPO has reached out “many times” to POI for evidence of the allegations, but this was not communicated to Mongabay before the article was published.

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