THE BLOG
11/25/2014 12:26 pm ET Updated Jan 25, 2015

Sustainable Palm Oil: The New Norm?

I have to say, when I first saw the email in my inbox, I thought the guy at the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil had his email hacked. Yet he replied, confirming the invitation to moderate a session at their annual general meeting which took place last week.

Their reason for inviting me was simply to see if there was anything I could contribute to the ongoing discussions about what the RSPO is trying to do. I accepted the invitation as I had a few things to say to their faces.

It was nerve wracking, mind you, to be in an environment where most folks know what you're going to say and they showed their displeasure openly. The mere thought of facing hundreds of these types in an enclosed room had me shaking but I was determined not to let down the brave souls at the RSPO who thought I should be given a chance to speak.

Speak I did. It was a short speech but I told the crowd of RSPO members that their impact on the market was disappointing with low confidence in their logo.

I didn't shake as much as I thought I would. The reason for the new found confidence was an earlier speech given by RSPO Chair Biswaranjan Sen who threatened expulsions and membership suspensions for non-compliant members!

He added these sweet words :

This is not acceptable. RSPO is not a club where payment of membership fees is enough to secure a seat at the table.

The words were sweet because all the years that I've gone off at companies for their use of palm oil, the first thing I heard was "We are members of the RSPO" as if that gave them some green badge of honor.

Not anymore. These are new times and I hope the RSPO carries out its threat. What we need is a mass expulsion of members who have not contributed to the group and do not intend to do so. The RSPO needs more quality members than quantity. Better producing members have actually created splinter groups in recent years to distinguish themselves from the average non-compliant members. The splinter groups includes the Palm Oil Innovation Group (POIG) comprising of New Britain Palm Oil, Agropalma and others. More recently, we saw another splinter group being set up under the Sustainable Palm Oil Manifesto which included one of the biggest palm oil companies globally, Sime Darby.

What will this do to gain more credibility for the RSPO's logo?

Everything. If you read online postings on social media, it would seem like every orangutan killed or forest burnt was committed by an RSPO member. This is absolutely not true. RSPO members may control some 50% of total plantations but the sad truth is that only some 18% of it is certified. This selective certification by their own members is what is hurting the credibility of the RSPO and it has taken action to fix this problem.

All new plantations as of January 2010 must be reported to the RSPO in adherence to their policies on New Plantings. I've challenged enough individual certification attempts to tell you that certification saves forests and protects human rights.

Certification is definitely what we need as consumers. The presence of credible logos on packaging will make it that much easier to make a conscientious choice when shopping. This recent study may have been on forestry products but I bet that the same results would show for products that displayed a credible sustainable palm oil logo.

National certification schemes.

The main palm oil producing countries which are Malaysia and Indonesia, have also recognized the importance of certification. While I have criticised the Indonesian Sustainable Palm Oil (ISPO) certification scheme previously as being ineffective, the new government under charismatic President "Jokowi" is making sweeping changes to fix violations of forest licensing and corruption. Even the Independent Oil Palm Small Holders in Indonesia have come forward with their own commitment to support sustainable palm oil!

The Malaysian palm oil producers who rank second in terms of volume to the Indonesians are introducing their own certification scheme in January 2015 under Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) The early indications are that it will be a good one. Since the announcement of this new scheme last year, the industry has worked with its members to reforest key wildlife habitats in the state of Sabah. Their quest for acceptance as a credible producer of sustainable palm oil should add some urgency to other conservation plans which includes a Tiger Action Plan for the last remaining Malayan tigers.

The RSPO as the first guy out of the gate, has indicated its willingness to collaborate with both government schemes as way of making sustainable palm oil the new norm. I'm not so sure if that would work out well.

The RSPO was founded by conservation groups and industry members to try and control some of the rampant destruction by the industry a decade ago. While it continues to receive criticism that it has failed to stop deforestation, last week's statements by the RSPO, if enacted upon, will see a much more credible logo emerge in the coming months. It may have the recognition of governments like the United Kingdom and the fabulous Memorandum of Agreement signed with the United Nations Environmental Program but it could get its faced dirtied again if it gets too close to national certification schemes.

The thing is, the ISPO and MSPO are governmental bodies and have their nation's development agendas to fulfill.

Neither of these countries see themselves as some vast tropical theme park to be preserved in their entirety for the benefit of other nations.

We can take a look at other countries for comparison. Countries like Canada push tarsands oil as a national priority while the United States continues the practice of fracking for shale gas despite the associated problems caused to people and planet.

I totally empathize with the wildlife rescue groups in Malaysia and Indonesia who spit on the mention of palm oil. After all, their eyes have seen destruction on a level which we can't begin to imagine. Palm oil export revenues however, are what builds airports and hospitals and indeed, the internet service which local activists use to rant against palm oil development. The key role that Malaysia and in particular Indonesia can play now, is to show African countries, the Philippines and India, that national development goals must be met without the mayhem.