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"Sustainable" Palm Oil

by Eric W |

The History of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil

World Wildlife Foundation (WWF) pioneered the effort to create sustainably sourced palm oil. After forming a group with large palm oil stakeholders such as Aarhus United UK Ltd, Migros, Malaysian Palm Oil Association, and Unilever in 2002, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was officially founded two years later. After almost two decades, the RSPO has become one of the largest certification organizations for palm oil. It is dominated by the palm oil industry which continues to deforest land to expand production.

RSPO Board of Governors - August 2022



Oil Palm Growers, Processors, and/or Traders

  1. United Plantations Bhd
  2.  Golden Agri-Resources Ltd
  3. AgroCaribe
  4. Asisuasu Sawday Amanah
  5. SOCFIN Company Berhad
  6. AarhusKarlshamn AB ("AAK")
  7. Wilmar International Limited

Consumer Goods Manufacturers

  1. Procter and Gamble
  2. Unilever


  1. Retailers’ Palm Oil Group


  1. Coöperatieve Rabobank U.A

Non-Governmental Organizations and Nonprofits 

  1. Both ENDS
  2. World Resources Institute
  3. Forest Peoples Programme
  4. WWF
  5. Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation

Each entity listed in the right column has a representative that is on the Board of Governors or acts as an advisor to the board.

The Problems with Certification and Self-Regulation

About 75% of RSPO’s Board of Governors are representatives from the palm oil industry that have a profit incentive to expand production. The remaining 25% of members consist of environmental and social non-profit organizations (NGOs). 

By operating with a board of directors with heavy interest in palm oil expansion, RSPO invites questions about its priorities and ability to self-regulate. There is a clear conflict between profit and public interest. This operating model would be like the USDA allowing agricultural producers to set the standard for organic certification, where they would have a profit incentive to adopt less stringent guidelines. 

Environmental watchdog organizations have condemned the RSPO for its lack of transparency and accountability. The Assurance Task Force, an RSPO internal team created to ensure transparency, failed to complete 55% of its activities before it was finally disbanded.  The Environmental Investigation Agency also cited the organization of refusing to quickly address violations and accused some of their member companies of producing fraudulent reports.

What Self-Regulated Sustainability Rules Look Like? 

One of RSPO's first actions after forming in 2004 was declaring palm oil produced on land deforested before November 2005 as sustainable. Companies that previously cleared land could now claim that palm oil was produced sustainably since the deforestation occurred before the arbitrary date. This allowed members to essentially erase past deforestation. 

Over time demand for sustainable palm oil increased and RSPO members were able to take advantage of recently deforested land to produce sustainable palm oil. The independent news platform Mongabay described this process in one of their articles about sustainable palm oil:

“First, an old-growth tropical forest is cut or burned for pulpwood or logging concessions; then a traditional, non-certified oil palm plantation is started; after a certain time, that traditional plantation is “transformed” into a certified one and wins a sustainability label.”

While people think they are making an environmentally conscious decision by purchasing “sustainable” palm oil, they are unknowingly supporting recent deforestation and its contribution to climate change. We believe the only way to truly lessen the environmental impact is to reduce demand for palm oil and switch to alternative ingredients. 

Has “Sustainable” Palm Oil Made a Difference?

Various scholars have released findings indicating RSPO’s inability to reduce the industry's environmental impact: 

Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, “About,” RSPO, accessed August 12, 2022,

Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, “Our Organisation,” RSPO, accessed July 22, 2022,,of%20Governors%20is%20supported%20by%204%20Standing%20Committees.

Environmental Investigative Organization. “Who Watches the Watchmen?” Accessed July 25, 2022., 1.

Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, “Principles and Criteria,” accessed July 22, 2022,, 62.

Hans Nicholas, “'Meaningless Certification': Study Makes the Case against 'Sustainable' Palm Oil,” Mongabay Environmental News, August 13, 2020,

Gatti, Roberto Cazzolla, and Alena Velichevskaya. “Certified ‘Sustainable’ Palm Oil Took the Place of Endangered Bornean and Sumatran Large Mammals Habitat and Tropical Forests in the Last 30 Years.” Science of The Total Environment. Elsevier, July 3, 2020.

Courtney L Morgans et al., “Evaluating the Effectiveness of Palm Oil Certification in Delivering Multiple Sustainability Objectives,” Environmental Research Letters (IOP Publishing, June 12, 2018),

Denis Ruysschaert and Denis Salles, “Towards Global Voluntary Standards: Questioning the Effectiveness in Attaining Conservation Goals,” Ecological Economics 107 (2014): pp. 438-446,

Paul R. Furumo et al., “Field Evidence for Positive Certification Outcomes on Oil Palm Smallholder Management Practices in Colombia,” Journal of Cleaner Production 245 (2020): p. 118891,