Sustainable Palm Oil Is A Reality

Published on: September 29, 2020

(September 28, 2020) Is there such a thing as sustainable palm oil? And if so, what does it look like? This was the central question for a podcast interview I had with Robin Hicks, deputy editor of Eco-Business, a Singapore based news platform on sustainable development. Recent attention for a scientific paper in which co-author Roberto Gatti argues that sustainable palm oil doesn’t exist, and that the term is misleading for consumers, spurred another debate about the reality of sustainable palm oil.

What sustainable palm oil looks like

Sustainable palm oil is deforestation-free, wildlife friendly, fair & social. It means we protect forests and avoid a repetition of forest destruction that we have seen in the past. It also means palm oil production and wildlife co-exist, by taking the right measures to protect wildlife habitats and by raising awareness for the protection of wildlife among oil palm growers and their communities.

Just as important is the social side of sustainable palm oil, which means we secure livelihoods for the millions of growers and workers active in the palm oil sector and protect their human rights.

What will we accept

To date 19% of global palm oil production is certified sustainable by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). Recent criticism focuses on certified sustainable plantations that are “checked off” as being free of deforestation, not taking into account that the land may have been forested 30 to 50 years ago. According to Mr. Gatti the historical environmental perspective that the RSPO should have followed is not taken into account.

Working with the RSPO for over ten years now, using their solid standard to support the transition of our farmers to sustainable practices, having performed extensive social and environmental assessments for certification and having gone through their rigorous audits, we know we can assure buyers and consumers that our palm oil is produced sustainably.

The issue here is that critics don’t agree with the definition of sustainable palm oil. And this is linked to the subject of deforestation. It begs the question whether production can ever be marked sustainable if a crop is produced on previously forested land, even if the deforestation took place decennia ago. Unless we agree on a common definition and approach, this type of criticism cannot be overcome. Yet in the meantime we need to incentivize the transition to sustainable production, which requires market reward and a clear differentiation between palm oil from sustainable and destructive sources.

Market reward to incentivize change

We can only continue the process of transformation when we bring more stakeholders on our collective journey, for which market reward is crucial. Sustainable palm oil comes at a cost. The cost difference between sustainably produced palm oil and conventional palm oil is substantial, especially on the smallholder level. Not only do growers receive a premium for their harvests, they also need to invest in changing their practices and their treatment of workers, as well as invest in extensive assessments and audits.

In our case, Palm Done Right farmers also convert to organic practices, with major implications for the way they work their land. And sourcing Palm Done Right palm oil from independent farms instead of large plantations — 36% of the farms in our supply network are smallholder farms — has implications for productivity and logistics, adding additional costs.

What we need

Sustainable palm oil is a reality. The transition towards the large-scale uptake of sustainable practices started 16 years ago when a broad group of stakeholders — growers, manufacturers, retailers, environmental and social NGOs — came together and founded the RSPO. During those years the sector has collectively set an example for other sectors to provide its consumers with a supply chain linked to sustainable sources. What we need is broad market acceptance and reward for sustainably produced palm oil, as well as attention for the positive change taking place in the sector. And the positive impact that we can create when brands and consumers like you embrace it as the true alternative for the destructive palm oil that still finds its way to our markets. Your choice matters.

To listen to the Eco-Business Podcast click link.

Written by Monique van Wijnbergen, Natural Habitat’s Sustainability & Corporate Communications Director and spokesperson for Palm Done Right. 


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Palm can be grown for good, bringing benefits to:

  • Our planet, due to palm oil’s land efficiency.
  • Local communities, due to the economic development oil palm production creates.
  • Our market, due to palm oil’s versatility and functionality as an ingredient, lifting product quality and performance.

Together, we can influence change for:

  • Manufacturers that are still using conflict palm oil for their products.
  • Retailers that are still listing products that contain conflict palm oil.
  • Brokers and distributors that are still supplying their customers with products that contain conflict palm oil.
  • Shoppers that have the power to vote with their dollar.

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