The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, an industry-dominated body that aims to drive environmental and social responsibility, is facing a key test of its viability in the next day.
For many years, RSPO was notorious for greenwashing almost any abuse from deforestation to forced labor. And even though it's supposed to drive sustainability, its environmental standards are much weaker than those of the world's largest agribusinesses (including those of its own members).
Most importantly, its standards permit companies to clear ultra carbon rich peatlands and so-called secondary forests - even if those forests are teeming with wildlife, and the only thing that makes them secondary is that someone came by and took out a single log decades ago. Indeed, even RSPO co-founder WWF says that "it is, unfortunately, no longer possible for producers or users of palm oil to ensure that they are acting responsibly simply by producing or using Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO)."
As long as RSPO tolerates deforestation, it goes without saying that there will be limits to what this "sustainability" body can achieve.
However, even I have to admit that whereas RSPO used to be nothing but a forum for palm oil executives, fresh from bulldozing orangutan habitat, to offer fanciful tales about their love of Mother Nature, there have been stirrings of real action. In 2015, the organization banned palm oil giant Golden Agri-Resources from developing new land while it investigated a complaint of a breach of community rights. This concrete action, along with a suspension by The Forest Trust, helped spur the company to address a variety of environmental and human rights issues in its supply chain, and launch a serious peat restoration effort. While it still has further to go, GAR's actions are being recognized by NGO's and customers, as well as RSPO. That's the way things are supposed to work.
Most recently, RSPO took the even stronger step of suspending the IOI Group and its affiliate IOI Loders Croklaan after the company failed to take adequate steps to address significan deforestation and peatland clearance, even after giving the company multiple opportunities to act. While RSPO's action was slow in coming, its willingness to act against one of the palm oil majors in response to a serious and unmitigated breach showed that perhaps RSPO at least trying to uphold its rules.
Now, IOI is appealing, and aggressively lobbying RSPO - and its own customers - to tell RSPO to drop its suspension.
In a display of either a severely attenuated notion of justice or a highly developed chutzpah, the company is actually basing its appeal to RSPO primarily on the absurd rationale that suspension would be disruptive to customers. As IOI wrote in a letter to RSPO explaining why it wanted the suspension for its commercial sales arm lifted:
1. Over 300 RSPO members...are currently taking [palm oil] products from IOI Loders Croklaan. These products are specialised food ingredients used in thousands of branded goods sold to millions of consumers around the world.
2. In many cases for these members, IOI Loders Croklaan is a sole supplier; and in some cases the RSPO member is using the RSPO logo on their products.
I can admire the chutzpah required to put such an outlandishly attenuated notion of justice on paper - that there should be no accountability because accountability would cause some commercial disruption. But after six years of having every chance in the world to address these grievances in some other fashion, and meanwhile continuing to pile up serious deforestation and labor rights violations, I would hope RSPO takes IOI's appeal as seriously as IOI has taken any one of its own promises to do better.
More to the point, any company that is reliant on IOI at this point would already be taking an extreme risk; the possibility of their suspension has been widely reported for months, and more importantly, the evidence that they have been breaching both RSPO standards and their own policies has kept emerging. IOI has repeatedly engaged in deforestation, peatland clearance, and labor abuse even in the cases that have been highlighted and received public attention.
Companies like Unilever, Neste Oil, Hershey's, and the big doughnut companies have bought large amounts of palm oil from IOI (Unilever even launched a "global partnership" with them in 2014) despite all of IOI's public and egregious violations, and repeated failures to address them. They've justified it because of IOI's RSPO affiliation, despite RSPO's non-compliance with their own No Deforestation policies. That's disappointing, but it would make these companies look ridiculous if IOI was to use them as an excuse to avoid real sanction from RSPO - an example of greenwashing gone wild.
RSPO has a chance to show some teeth, some relevance, and help purchasers like Unilever, Neste, and Hershey's avoid the impression that they're not going to hold their palm oil suppliers responsible for deforestation or human rights abuse. Who knows, if that goes well, they might even decide they like doing the right thing.
UPDATE, March 31: Unilever has publicly announced that it will cease doing business with IOI.