Palm Oil

Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil is ‘greenwashing’ labelled products, environmental investigation agency says

The Environmental Investigation Agency says the RSPO is not upholding its own rules, but its new report has been described as overdramatic and inaccurate.

As members of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) gather in Bangkok for their annual conference, the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) has released a new report that says consumers around the world are being conned about the sustainability of the palm oil contained in products carrying the RSPO label.

The EIA says its investigations have established a catalogue of RSPO shortcomings, including allegedly fraudulent auditing of oil palm plantations, primary forests being felled, and community land rights being violated.

However, the report has been criticised as being over dramatic in its language. The EIA has been accused of being uninformed about the certification process and making claims that are too general and exaggerated. The RSPO says there are “glaring inaccuracies” in the report.

THE EIA says the RSPO, whose slogan is “Transforming markets to make sustainable palm oil the norm”, is greenwashing its products, effectively giving them false environmental credibility.

“This is despite these same major concerns about the credibility of the RSPO being raised by the EIA in 2015,” the agency said.

Palm oil is the most ubiquitous edible oil on the planet. It is found in products ranging from soap, cosmetics, and cleaning products to candles, chocolate, and ice cream, and it is also used to make biofuel.

The RSPO is a voluntary certification watchdog, created in 2004 to address the impacts associated with conventional palm oil. The organisation has more than 4,000 members in 93 countries.

EIA forests campaigner Siobhan Pearce said: “A company that’s an RSPO member should be really worried because this is undermining the whole credibility of the RSPO system and a lot of these companies are buying RSPO-certified palm oil at a premium cost to themselves.

“If the RSPO is not upholding any of its own rules and if its palm oil isn’t what it says it is on the tin, then that’s a major problem for the industry.”

Pearce  added: “Consumers should also be worried because they’re buying this certified palm oil on the understanding that it does not cause harm to the environment, that it’s not destroying wildlife or forests and that it’s not exploiting local people, when in fact the RSPO is not keeping to those rules and it is doing all those things.

“You have to wonder whether the RSPO has any credibility at all. To a certain extent, we’re all being conned because the RSPO is not keeping to its own rules and procedures and it’s a form of greenwashing.”

The EIA says the RSPO has mismanaged the whole certification process.

Michelle Desilets, who is the executive director of the UK-based Orangutan Land Trust and is on the RSPO complaints panel, says that the EIA makes some valid points, but frames its criticism in apocalyptic language and suggests that everything about the RSPO is wrong.

“It’s useful to point out specific problems, but to condemn the entire membership of the RSPO and every process and case as a con and collusion and greenwashing is simply not productive,” Desilets said.

“The EIA makes it sound like every single action taken by about thirty working groups, task forces, and panels is mismanaged. This is a ridiculous and uninformed thing to say.”

In its formal response, the RSPO said that, since the first “Watch the Watchmen” report came out, the RSPO 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.”

The RSPO said it had always been committed to continuous improvement and self-reflection on what’s working and what’s not. “We also realise that by being transparent, the organisation is an easy target for groups that are not actively trying to solve the problem, and instead, are trying to bring down those that are.

“Characterising an issue or a person in a negative way is a useful way to gain attention and to get a point across. We respect and understand this. The RSPO, however, is an organisation that must remain transparent and present only the facts.”

Palm oil is worth an estimated $US70 billion a year. Ninety-three per cent of the world’s RSPO-certified palm oil is produced in Indonesia and Malaysia (51 percent in Indonesia and 42 percent in Malaysia).

In 2015, EIA’s report “Who Watches the Watchmen?“, produced with the agency’s Malaysian partner Grassroots, took the RSPO to task over major failures in its system of scrutiny that is intended to underpin the sustainability guarantee.

The EIA says its new report,“Who Watches the Watchmen? 2”, reveals that the RSPO “has failed to make meaningful progress on its promises to clean up its act”.

Pearce said: “We are appalled to find that the situation remains just as bad. The RSPO is still mired in ineffectual and opaque processes, which leave rogue companies at liberty to continue destroying primary forests and violating indigenous communities’ rights with impunity – and then still get the certificate of sustainability for the tainted palm oil they produce.

“A guarantee of environmental sustainability is only as good as its weakest link – and the RSPO’s guarantee is nothing but weak links.”

Oil palm plantation in Sabah, Malaysia.

RSPO failures alleged in the new report include the following:

  • a complaint case concerning community land rights that has been ongoing for nine and a half years;
  • cases where the RSPO is aware that companies have cut down primary forest, but has failed to stop them, compensate communities, or eject the offending companies from its membership;
  • land conflicts not being identified;
  • primary forest and important habitats being degraded;
  • fraudulent auditing carried out on plantations; and
  • auditors not being properly trained or not having the necessary knowledge.

The agency also alleges that the RSPO has colluded with companies to hide flagrant violations of its own standards.

The RSPO’s system is “slow and unresponsive to active violations of its standards”, the agency says.

Pearce said: “This is a scandalous state of affairs because we raised all these issues with the RSPO four years ago and it set up a special task force which was meant to develop a comprehensive work programme to deal with them, but it hasn’t delivered.

“Companies and consumers are assuming that this certified palm oil is actually good, is really not causing environmental damage or resulting in social conflict, but what we’re finding is in so many of these cases there are unresolved issues, there are land conflicts that are still ongoing, forest-clearing is still happening and wildlife habitats are still being destroyed.

“The world is in the midst of a climate and natural emergency and can no longer afford to wait for the RSPO to slowly nudge companies in the right direction while still allowing them to do continual harm to the environment and people.”

An orangutan discovered on an oil palm plantation in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia, in December 2014, with more than 40 shotgun pellets in her body.

In its response, the RSPO said that to suggest that the organisation was a failure was a misjustice.

“Before the RSPO, there was no Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) or Indonesian Sustainable Palm Oil (ISPO). There was no Palm Oil Innovation Group (POIG). The organisation exists because civil society and business came together to fill a void that was not being filled by others.

“And we would argue it is still the best system globally, despite the need for continuous improvement, to tackle the issues in the areas of the world where oil palm is grown.”

The RSPO denies allegations that it has actively colluded with companies to hide violations of the RSPO standards.

“The RSPO Complaints Panel have investigated violations and complaints that they found to be valid. As a result, the RSPO has taken action by suspending or removing RSPO members that have not achieved remediation for their violations.”

The new EIA report, also produced in collaboration with Grassroots, says that the RSPO is often hailed as the best certification scheme for palm oil based on its standard – the Principles and Criteria (P&C). However, the report says, the organisation receives too little scrutiny about how it is ensuring that its standards are adhered to.

In 2018, the RSPO adopted new and improved P&C that include provisions for ensuring no deforestation, no new planting on peat, the protection of human rights defenders, improved workers’ rights, and better smallholder inclusion.

All audits undertaken from November 2019 will be assessed for compliance with the new P&C.

The RSPO is about to start implementing its new and improved P&C, but its actions are lacking, the EIA says.

“Despite it setting up an Assurance Task Force, this body has failed to deliver and complete its objectives. The Assurance Task Force stands as one of the worst-run working groups of the RSPO. It has been disorganised, unprofessionally managed, and has chronically missed deadlines,” the agency says.

The EIA says that the last update from the Assurance Task Force in 2018 reported that 55 per cent of its activities were incomplete. Of its five key objectives under the task force, only the development of Free, Prior and Informed Consent guidelines had been completed, but their effectiveness was unknown.

“Non-adherence to the RSPO’s standards is systemic and widespread, and has led to ongoing land conficts, labour abuses, and destruction of forests.”

The RSPO must urgently commission an independent evaluation of the Assurance Task Force, the EIA says, and must also make the auditing process more robust and establish independent peer reviews for draft audits before a certification decision is made. It must also substantially improve its complaints process, the agency adds.

The roundtable accepts that 55 percent of the Assurance Task Force’s agreed actions were outstanding in December 2018 and says this contributed to the formation of its Assurance Standing Committee. It was an issue the RSPO had already identified and was working to address, the roundtable said.

In 2017, the RSPO adopted new complaint procedures. “These included some positive changes, such as an appeals process and the redirection of complaints concerning certified plantations or certification bodies to the accreditation body – ASI,” the EIA says.

“Still, the ASI system only accepts complaints if an attempt to resolve issue with certification bodies has been exhausted.”

ASI (Assurance Services International) says the above process is a positive step for the RSPO and results in more timely handling of complaints and more local-level engagement.

“The principle of subsidiarity, or escalating a complaint from the local level upwards, is a common best practice for dispute management worldwide,” ASI said.

ASI says it only accepts complaints that have already been addressed by the certification body (CB) because these bodies have dispute handling requirements that allow them to address allegations of nonconformity made against a company at the local level. They have the most knowledge of the company and can decide on the status of the certificate, ASI points out.

“If complainants are not satisfied with the results of a CB investigation, they can escalate their complaint to ASI and then to RSPO if needed. This means that the complaints that require the most intervention are getting higher levels of attention and intervention, while complaints that can be resolved locally are addressed more quickly,” ASI added.

In its new report, the EIA says that the activities outlined for the complaints system under the RSPO’s Assurance Task Force have never been completed.

As of October 2019, there were 38 open complaints in the RSPO system, the EIA says. “The longest has been open nine and a half years. About one third have been open more for than three years.

“On average, it takes 700 days before complaints are closed.”

Many NGOs have raised continuing concerns about the RSPO’s complaints procedure, the EIA says.

“RSPO members quitting the RSPO rather than resolving complaints remains a problem and seems to disincentivise the RSPO from sanctioning members over complaints to minimise its risk of losing members.

“The RSPO adopted a resolution in 2018 to try and discourage members with unresolved complaints from avoiding their obligations by divesting or membership withdrawal. It is yet to be seen how well this can be implemented.”

In its response the RSPO said that to insinuate that droves of RSPO members withdraw from the organisation because of an ongoing complaint was false.

“There have been at most, two cases, and this issue is currently being addressed by a resolution adopted by the membership in 2018.  The resolution calls for RSPO to explore ways to discourage members subject to an active complaint from divesting or withdrawing, which in itself is groundbreaking for a voluntary membership organisation.”

The RSPO says its new Complaints and Appeals Procedure is a much improved and faster process and is only used for cases brought up after it was adopted. “Legacy” cases, which are complaints that have been on the books for a long time – sometimes years – because of complexity, are able to use the process retroactively.

The EIA says that transparency in the RSPO’s complaints system is severely lacking. “The RSPO far too frequently fails to release documents, details of its own investigations and reports, and details of
the compensation required by companies. All are integral to the successful resolution of complaints,” the agency said.

In its response, the RSPO said: “Releasing all of the Complaints Panel records is a reckless recommendation and could make complainants, whistleblowers, and human rights defenders susceptible to retaliation.”

The RSPO points to the changes instituted by ASI to manage and control audits. These changes included improvements in quality assurance, such as additional guidance on Free Prior and Informed Consent during the New Planting Procedure (NPP), certification body training, and performance monitoring, the RSPO said.

In 2010, the RSPO introduced the NPP process to clarify which P&C requirements uncertified units must be in compliance with prior to planting.

During the certification process, auditing bodies check whether there has been any new planting in uncertified units, and, if so, whether the NPP has been carried out.

The roundtable must end the abuse of its NPP process by implementing the following measures, among others, the EIA says:

  • verify that spatial data submitted by companies includes all its concessions;
  • monitor land clearing in all uncertified plantations to ensure the submission of NPP;
  • automatically raise non-submission of New Planting Procedures to the Investigation & Monitoring Unit (IMU) or to the complaints system and suspend companies that repeatedly fail to submit NPP; and
  • map and monitor high conservation value forests in both uncertified and certified concessions.

The RSPO defended itself against accusations that its IMU has not been transparent in its investigation of public domain cases and in hotspot monitoring.

The accusation, the RSPO says, is “nonsensical”.

It added: “The IMU works directly with the CEO with regard to membership violations, and in close collaboration with the Complaints Panel. This is squarely in line with the provisions outlined in the RSPO statutes, according both entities the power to sanction members accordingly.”

The RSPO says the IMU has a robust hotspot monitoring and fire alert system and two million hectares of land owned by RSPO members area are tracked daily via satellite technology.

“In 2019, at the height of the fire season in Southeast Asia, the IMU detected 278 hotspots in RSPO members concessions out of the 73,508 total RSPO concessions in the area …

“To date, no other sustainability standard regulator uses extensive GIS technology to monitor geographic and environmental risks such as deforestation, extensive fire incident, and illegal land clearing.”

Trustee of the Indonesian Auditor Network Bart W. van Assen said that the authors of the new report are failing to grasp the fundamentally different roles of the RSPO, the High Conservation Value Resource Network (HCVRN)¹, ASI, and the numerous conformity assessment bodies.

“Hence, they also fail to identify many of the practical actions taken by these organisations,” Van Assen said.

Van Assen is scathing about the new report, calling it “a shallow attempt to act as judge, jury, and executioner based on incomplete records and inadequate due diligence”.

He said the report “merely polarises public debate about sustainable palm oil, alienates the actors of change within the RSPO, the HCVRN and ASI, and drives a wedge between complainant and complainee”.

This is unfortunate, Van Assen says. “Valid criticism has been, and no doubt will be, addressed by the organisations involved,” he added.

The RSPO concluded in its response: “We have only just seen the report, on the eve of our annual conference that is largely focused on gathering stakeholders to continue improving the RSPO. Therefore, It may take a while for us to digest all of this report.

“In the meantime, our stakeholders can take comfort knowing that the RSPO continues to be informed by scores of credible research organisations who conduct independent research on the impacts of the RSPO. The RSPO continues to receive input and support from a wide range of  experts from leading civil society organisations.”

The EIA says that, “as the world approaches 2020 targets to halt deforestation, the RSPO needs to rapidly implement radical solutions to restore its credibility”. It says it questions whether the RSPO is willing and able “to rectify its systemic failures”.

Ultimately, the EIA says, “voluntary certification is too limited by its voluntary nature”.


  1. The HCVRN is a member-based organisation that supports the consistent implementation of the High Conservation Value (HCV) approach, which helps to identify, manage, and monitor significant biological, ecological, social, or cultural values in a variety of production landscapes. The HCVRN also provides guidance documents, tools, and templates to improve HCV assessments. It licenses lead HCV assessors and monitors the quality of their work over time.


Headline photo: oil palm plantation in the PT Bumi Sawit Sejahtera concession in Ketapang, West Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo, taken on December 3, 2015. © Ulet Ifansasti/Greenpeace.

PT Bumi Sawit Sejahtera is a subsidiary of IOI Corporation Berhad, a Malaysian conglomerate.

NGOs and others concerned about environmental protection and human rights were outraged when, in 2016, the RSPO decided to reinstate its certification of IOI.

The RSPO had suspended IOI in April 2016 for conducting peatland clearance in violation of the organisation’s principles, and being in breach of other environmental safeguards.

However, the roundtable announced in August 2016 that the suspension would be lifted.

The Amsterdam-based, not-for-profit consultancy Aidenvironment accused IOI of breaching RSPO standards and its own environmental policies on its concessions in Ketapang.

The consultancy brought forward evidence of a drainage canal being constructed in High Conservation Value (HCV) forest in the PT Bumi Sawit Sejahtera concession.

Aidenvironment said IOI had also cleared forest on deep peat in that concession, and continued to clear in that area after being told it was in breach of RSPO standards.

There was also illegal planting outside the boundaries of the PT Bumi Sawit Sejahtera concession, Aidenvironment said.


This article has been edited.


Update 6/11/2019

As the RSPO’s annual meeting entered its final day, a coalition of 15 NGOs released a statement calling on the roundtable and its members to act urgently to fulfil their sustainability promises.

“As the world faces a climate, deforestation and human rights crisis, we call on the RSPO and its members to fulfill their promise of sustainability and commitment to ending deforestation, peatland destruction and violation of human rights in the production and procurement of palm oil among its member companies,” the NGOs said.

Violations of the RSPO’s standard and procedures remained systemic and widespread and there was little evidence that RSPO members were truly implementing the roundtable’s Principles and Criteria, the NGOs stated.

“To the contrary, research has shown no significant difference between certified and non-certified plantations, and fire, peatland loss, and human and labour rights violations have been repeatedly exposed on RSPO-certified plantations,” they said.

“The planet, affected communities, workers and global citizens can no longer afford to wait for the RSPO to slowly nudge member companies in the right direction, while allowing them to do continual harm both to the environment and people.”

To remain relevant in today’s world, the RSPO must urgently strengthen its assurance systems and make the entire process – certification, monitoring, audits, complaints, and enforcement – credible and robust, the NGOs said.

“We call on all RSPO members to take up this call to action with the necessary urgency.”

Signatories include the Environmental Investigation Agency, Friends of the Earth Japan, Grassroots, Greenpeace, the Japan Tropical Forest Action Network, the Rainforest Action Network, the Sarawak Dayak Iban Association, SumOfUs, and Verité Southeast Asia.

Update 7/11/2019

The HCVRN released a statement in response to the EIA report, stating that it appreciated the report’s statements about the significant improvements in HCV assessments resulting from the HCVRN’s Assessor Licensing Scheme (ALS) quality assurance.

The network said it encouraged the EIA “to continue providing feedback that will help us, and others involved, improve our work”.

The HCVRN pointed out that, from 2015, the RSPO started requiring that HCV assessments for new oil palm plantings were carried out by HCVRN-licensed assessors.

Since November 2018, integrated High Conservation Value-High Carbon Stock Approach (HCV-HCSA) assessments led by HCVRN-licensed assessors are required by the RSPO to ensure that land clearing for oil palm plantations does not cause deforestation or damage any area required to protect or enhance HCV or HCS forests.

“The ALS is proving to be useful in not only ensuring that HCV and HCV-HCSA assessments are done correctly, but that more areas are protected from damage or destruction,” the HCVRN said.

“We agree that stakeholders should continue to work together to collectively strengthen assurance systems in the RSPO with clear and shared goals and processes, striving for innovation and learning. The HCVRN is willing to continue to provide support to RSPO’s new Assurance Standing Committee.”

The HCVRN says that, in the new EIA report, the terms ‘auditor’ and ‘HCVRN ALS assessor’ are used interchangeably and the responsibilities of the HCVRN and ASI are blurred.

“HCVRN does not have a direct role in monitoring the quality and performance of auditors, nor in pursuing related suspensions or sanctions,” the network states.

“It is important to clarify that HCVRN licensed assessors and auditors have different scopes of work within the RSPO system and their work occurs at different times in the certification process.”

HCVRN licensed assessors are contracted by oil palm growers to conduct HCV (or HCV-HCSA) assessments, the HCVRN points out. Auditors, meanwhile, are responsible for verifying whether oil palm growers comply with the RSPO Principles and Criteria.