RSPO pledges to act if greenwashing claims are proven

This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on November 18, 2019.

Webber: The EIA has been quite constructive. It has given some advice on how to go forward and which we will consider. Photo by Patrick Goh

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KUALA LUMPUR: The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) will take corrective measures if the allegations against the certification watchdog, including that it is giving false environmental credibility to its products, are proven true.

“It would be irresponsible for us not to tackle these issues,” RSPO chief executive officer (CEO) Datuk Darrel Webber told The Edge Financial Daily on the sidelines of the organisation’s annual meeting in Bangkok early this month.

Webber was reacting to a new report by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) and Malaysian consulting firm Grassroots, highlighting alleged shortcomings of the RSPO.

“The EIA thinks we have a blind spot and we are going to check it out,” said Webber. “The EIA has been quite constructive. It has given some advice on how to go forward and which we will consider.”

In a statement released in conjunction with the report, the EIA noted that its earlier report in 2015, produced with Grassroots, “took the RSPO to task over major failures in its system of scrutiny intended to underpin the sustainability guarantee”.

And in the new report, titled “Who watches the watchmen 2” and released to coincide with the RSPO’s Bangkok meeting, the organisation was accused of failing “to make meaningful progress on its promises to clean up its act”.

In an immediate reaction, the RSPO said in a statement on Nov 3 that it had “evolved to incorporate much of what was suggested in the report”.

“And while there are some failings as highlighted in the second report that the RSPO is continuously seeking to improve upon, there are also some glaring inaccuracies in this report,” it added.

On the accusation that it had actively colluded with companies to hide violations of the RSPO standards, the watchdog said its complaints panel had investigated violations and complaints that it found to be valid, and subsequently suspended or removed members who had not rectified their errors.


‘Significant achievement if all Sabah smallholders are certified’

Meanwhile, RSPO members had approved new standards specifically designed for smallholders at the Bangkok meeting. Under the new certification, smallholders are given three years to be certified, with provision of training on financial literacy and sustainable growing techniques provided.

Asked on the potential impact of the smallholder standards in Malaysia, Webber said that in Sabah alone, there are 40,000 to 50,000 smallholders and it would be a significant achievement if the RSPO could certify all these smallholders.

“If we can do that and people around Sabah see it is possible, I am sure a lot of others will want to also participate,” he said.

Asked about the RSPO’s position in the industry given the presence of local standards such as Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) and Indonesian Sustainable Palm Oil (ISPO), Webber said the introduction of these two standards was a positive step forward.

Smallholders, he said, can first look to achieving MSPO status, and once that is achieved it would not be too much of a jump to attain RSPO status.

Webber added that the RSPO expects to gain more members from Malaysia, while hoping that more local brands such as those in the fast-moving consumer goods sector.

To encourage its members to buy more sustainable palm oil, the RSPO is making it compulsory for them to increase their purchases by 15% regardless of end use. If a particular member does not increase its purchases of sustainable palm oil, the RSPO has the right to sanction that member.

Webber said if all members honour their commitment to increasing their sustainable palm oil purchases, it will be able to soak up all of the sustainable palm oil in the market. As a result, more growers would see incentives to produce sustainable palm oil.

Currently, 21% of global palm oil is RSPO-certified. Webber said the organisation would be happy once the percentage reaches 51% as “it would be just as easy to get sustainable palm oil as it would to get unsustainable palm oil”.

Last week, the RSPO announced that Webber would be stepping down from his position as CEO on Jan 16, 2020. He has been attached to the RSPO for eight years, first as its secretary-general and then as its CEO.


‘NGO support for sustainable palm oil is support for RSPO’

Meanwhile, RSPO co-chairman Datuk Carl Bek-Nielsen told The Edge Financial Daily that support by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) for sustainable palm oil is an endorsement for the RSPO.

“Basically [NGOs] are saying stop all this nonsense about boycotting palm oil, because a boycott punishes growers indiscriminately. That is a very strong statement,” said Bek-Nielsen, who is also the chief executive director of United Plantations Bhd.

According to the RSPO’s website, its membership includes 46 environmental and conservation NGOs. Asked if the presence of MSPO and ISPO detracts from the RSPO’s mission, Bek-Nielsen said it is short-sighted to see which standard is the best.

“If my house is on fire, I quite frankly don’t care where the water hose is coming from. As long as it helps put out the fire,” he said, adding that MSPO and ISPO are worthy standards and have a role to play in the palm oil ecosystem.

He said getting growers to attain ISPO or MSPO status starts the process of adopting sustainable farming practices, and they do not have to immediately seek RSPO status.

He said “privileged and out-of-touch elite” need to understand that this process is not instantaneous, and that they have a different set of priorities from growers, especially those who are underprivileged.

On claims that the RSPO is not doing enough to ensure that more growers practise sustainable practices, Bek-Nielsen said: “I would say please come down from outer space and put both your feet on the ground and smell the roses, and try to get an understanding of what the realities are.”

“It is very fine for Western egalitarian people to set very lofty standards, but they must not forget there is also the developing world whose basic needs are that they just want to have an improved lifestyle.” he said.