Safety equipment for herbicide spraying in an RSPO-certified plantation in Ghana. He only forgot his left glove…

This week’s story is about the RSPO, which is the most important existing sustainability certification body for oil palm. The abbreviation RSPO stands for Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil. The RSPO provides sustainability certificates for companies and smallholders which meet the Roundtables’ sustainability standards. In 2012 the European union adopted the RSPO certification as a standard for biofuel import (for the full European commission standard, see here).

Short history

The formation of the RSPO was initiated by the World Wildlife Fund in 2001. The purpose was to make oil palm production more sustainable, both socially and environmentally. The approach was quite revolutionary: by bringing actors from the supply chain together and imposing voluntary standards, the RSPO wanted to transform the entire oil palm sector. The first partners to join with the new initiative were consumer goods company Unilever; the Malaysian Palm Oil Association, representing the private plantations in Malaysia; Switzerland’s largest retail company Migros; and the Swedish-Danish vegetable oil and fat producer Aarhus United. The RSPO as an organisation was formally established in Switzerland in 2004. By then 47 organisations already had expressed their intent to work with the RSPO.

In 2007, the RSPO General Assembly approved the first set of Principles and Criteria (P&C), which are basically a set of guidelines with which a plantation company or farmer group must comply in order to call itself ‘sustainable’. In 2010, the first company to be RSPO certified was Daabon Group in Colombia. By the end of 2011 around five million metric tonne, or ten per cent of the world palm oil volume, was RSPO certified, showing the strong interest from the industry in certification. The number has risen to twelve million metric tonnes in 2015, or 18 per cent of the total world volume. Currently 58 producers and 296 palm oil mills are RSPO certified.


Indonesian factory worker showing a sample of (certified) crude palm oil from a clean and well-organised mill in Central Kalimantan

RSPO Principles and Criteria

The Principles and Criteria are at the core of the RSPO, describing the standards of sustainability that the RSPO wants to enforce. For the larger oil palm growing countries a national interpretation of the RSPO Principles and Criteria exists, which takes into account the national rules and regulations, for example concerning minimum wages.

There are eight main principles, as listed below. These are:

  1. Commitment to transparency
  2. Compliance with applicable laws and regulations
  3. Commitment to long-term economic and financial viability
  4. Use of appropriate best practices by growers and millers
  5. Environmental responsibility and conservation of natural resources and biodiversity
  6. Responsible consideration of employees, and of individuals and communities affected by growers and mills
  7. Responsible development of new plantings
  8. Commitment to continuous improvement in key areas of activity

The principles are further specified by sets of criteria. Criteria two of principle two (compliance with laws), for example, reads: “The right to use land is demonstrated, and is not legitimately contested by local people who can demonstrate that they have legal, customary or user rights”. Criteria three of principle four (use of best practices) reads: “Practices minimise soil erosion and degradation of soils”. And criteria three of principle seven (responsible development of new plantings) reads: “New plantings since November 2005 have not replaced primary forest or any area required to maintain or enhance one or more High Conservation Values”.


Terraces to prevent soil erosion in the RSPO-certified plantation BOPP in Ghana

The adherence of companies to the principles and criteria is checked by independent third-party auditors. In turn, these auditors are accredited by the RSPO to ensure that they are able to carry out the audits correctly and fairly. After a company gets certified, it is re-audited every five years to ensure that it still adheres to the RSPO standards. If not, the certificate can be withdrawn, and membership of the RSPO can be suspended. The costs for the auditing are carried by the company that wants to become or remain RSPO certified.

So far, I have visited three RSPO certified plantation companies myself, as well as a group of certified smallholders in Thailand. Everywhere I was kindly received and the managers of the plantations proudly showed me around. I have talked with both proponents and critics of the RSPO, and these two are not mutually exclusive. For sure, there are many issues that remain to be resolved before the oil palm sector has achieved true sustainability. But I think the question of the independent smallholders in relation to the RSPO is especially urgent. Next week I want to discuss this topic in more detail.


Use of Palm Oil Mill Affluent (POME), a waste product from the factory, as a liquid fertiliser in an RSPO certified plantation

For those who want to know more about the RSPO: they have an excellent website from which I’ve taken part of the information for the story above.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The RSPO

  1. Neli says:

    I know get the meaning of the acronym. Thanks! 😉

  2. Anouk van Baalen says:

    Hey Lotte!

    Still following your blog posts with lot’s of interest! Did you see the article on the website Follow the Money on palm oil? (in Dutch)

    And do you know the research by Greetje Schouten on the effectiveness of the RSPO?

    Let me know when you want to get in touch with more RSPO critics. I have a few in my network ;). Good luck with your research!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *