Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil

The work of the RSPO is crucial in helping the industry move towards sustainability.

A long-standing commitment

Our commitment to sustainable palm oil is not new. In the mid-1990s, as part of our Sustainable Agriculture Programme, we started developing Good Agricultural Practice Guidelines for palm oil.

In 2004 we became a founding member of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) – an industry-led initiative set up in co-operation with the conservation organisation WWF.

Unilever took the lead to set up the RSPO because local governments were not able to properly regulate the sector. Too often economic development was given priority over forest preservation.

RSPO is a not-for-profit association that brings together stakeholders from different sectors of the palm oil industry, namely oil palm producers, palm oil processors or traders, consumer goods manufacturers, retailers, banks and investors, environmental and social NGOs, to develop and implement global standards for sustainable palm oil.

The RSPO currently has over 500 members, representing over 40% of all palm oil produced in the world. Working to increase the amount of certified sustainable palm oil that is available, the RSPO has set sustainability criteria against which suppliers can now be certified.

What is the role of the RSPO?

Unilever fully supports the RSPO. We firmly believe that making the organisation work is the best way to make the industry sustainable.

Since its inception, the RSPO has achieved a great deal:

  • It has formed the basis for a forum between users, producers and NGOs such as WWF, Rainforest Alliance, Oxfam and Sawit Watch where sustainability and deforestation can have a place around the discussion table.
  • It has established a set of standards called the Principles & Criteria (P&C) that define the practices for sustainable palm oil production. These standards address the legal, economic, environmental and social requirements of producing sustainable palm oil.
  • It has set up the RSPO Certification System, which is a framework for formally recognising and authenticating producers or growers who are producing palm oil according to the Principles & Criteria. The Certification System also verifies that any claims of using or supporting RSPO-certified palm oil made by players in the supply chain and end-product manufacturers or processors are genuine.

The RSPO is governed by an annual general assembly of members. The assembly decides the members of the executive board and votes on resolutions. Unilever’s Global Director of Sustainable Sourcing Development is currently Chair of the executive board.

Enabling certification

Following the agreement of RSPO Principles & Criteria in November 2005, a working group produced criteria for sustainable palm oil production, which were tested by a group of Roundtable members during 2007.

The RSPO developed national interpretations of the generic criteria in 2007 to allow for differences in national legislation in producing countries. Then, during the Fifth Roundtable Conference on Sustainable Palm Oil in November 2007, the RSPO launched its certification framework, making it possible to grow certified sustainable palm oil for the first time.

The first quantities of certified sustainable palm oil reached the market in November 2008. Unilever bought a part of this first consignment.

The RSPO has also been instrumental in the creation of GreenPalm certificates. These certificates support the production of sustainable palm oil certified to the standards of the RSPO.

How does the RSPO ensure compliance?

The RSPO is a voluntary organisation and it has two mechanisms to ensure members live up to their commitments. One is the Code of Conduct and the other is the certification framework. Palm oil producers are required to commit to having their operations certified against the RSPO standards. Users of palm oil are asked to commit to purchasing and using certified sustainable palm oil. The mandatory annual reporting of progress is the check on each member, available on the RSPO website.

Palm oil and greenhouse gas emissions

Emissions from land use and land use change are the major contributors to GHG emissions related to palm oil production. We therefore believe that these should be addressed as a priority.

Unilever contributed to the development of the RSPO GHG Working Group’s proposals and also shared its position during the public consultation period.

A summary of our position on some key issues related to the impact of palm oil on greenhouse gas emissions is set out below and our full position is available to download.

  • With regard to existing plantations, only those located on mineral soils should be considered for RSPO certification. This means RSPO certification should not cover palm oil plantations on peat land.
  • Only new plantations established on land with a carbon (C) stock smaller than 35 t C /ha should be considered for RSPO certification.
  • Future revisions of the RSPO criteria could focus on technology fixes for smaller GHG contributors, eg Palm Oil Mill Effluent (POME) treatment and fertiliser use efficiency.
  • The RSPO’s GHG Principles & Criteria should apply to both existing and future plantations so that GHG accounting for both is supported.