Why The Phrase “Certified Sustainable Palm Oil” Needs a Serious Makeover
Okay, so there seems to be some confusion out there about what “certified sustainable palm oil” actually means and we’re here to set the record straight.
You see, the CSPO (or Certified Sustainable Palm Oil) umbrella is too big. I said it. Come at me. It’s just too big and for lack of a better analogy, it is keeping businesses and egregious environmental practices completely dry, while leaving endangered animals and fragile ecosystems out in the rain. The phrase is imperfect and showing its weakness at the customer level. Semantics are important when they affect consumership, which in turn drives demand, and eventually endangers wildlife via ingredient sourcing.
So, let’s talk facts. Certified sustainable palm oil means one of four things, as defined by the RSPO:
This is the most desirable form of RSPO certified palm oil. It is, as the name suggests, guaranteed to be from one, singular identifiable source, kept away from unsustainable conflict palm oil throughout the supply chain. The chupacabra of palm oil, we have not encountered it yet through our own correspondences with companies but welcome finding it someday.
Very similar to the definition above but with one important distinction — this uses palm oil from multiple certified mills and supply bases. It’s not fully traceable to the plantation from which it was harvested, only to the mill at which it was refined. As a result, some argue that the inclusion of more than one mill, and little to no plantation record, means that deception can likely occur unpoliced.
To cut the cost of changing company-wide sourcing, this form of CSPO means traceable palm oil is mixed with ‘ordinary’ conflict palm oil — “provided that overall company quantities are controlled.” In fact, this process doesn’t even guarantee that the end product will always contain traceable palm oil because there’s no threshold that the RSPO promises to meet. For example, 50% unsustainable palm oil and 50% traceable palm oil, etc.
To us, this is where the truth really begins to bend. We don’t accept it as ’sustainable’ palm oil and don't want to participate in what this sourcing potentially means for wildlife and the environment.
BOOK & CLAIM
Also called GreenPalm Certificates. It is the cheapest option for companies making the switch to traceable palm oil and the distinction that we encounter the most. Basically, companies or manufacturers purchase certificates that in turn support the production of traceable palm oil. A large percentage of palm oil derivatives, because they do not exist as Segregated or Identity Preserved yet, are often GreenPalm.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I understand why this tiered system exists. It's crafted to allow companies who want to be environmentally-friendly to be a part of positive change, despite their current practices. If you tell a billion dollar enterprise to make a costly change and give them an ultimatum, they are within their right to tell you to take a hike. Tell them they have years, four options, and a certificate that makes them look eco-friendly and progressive and they might just participate.
My main issue with CSPO — other than how long companies tend to sit at the last two rungs of the above system — is that the term can be twisted very easily. Businesses use it freely and flippantly to prove to customers that they are environmentally-friendly. After hundreds of emails about this very subject, I can confirm that this has been offered to me many times, with no explanation, as an answer to my questions about environmental impact. On the other hand, I've also encountered many consumers who say something along the lines of “but that company uses sustainable palm oil.” To which, I have to respond: That company actually uses nothing but conflict palm oil. The “sustainable'‘ part of the title they're using denotes the purchase of GreenPalm certificates, which funds sustainable practices.
A typical scenario: I ask a company about their impact and whether or not their palm oil is sustainable. They tell me they use CSPO, as certified by the RSPO. I ask if they mean Identity Preserved or Segregated, they say that they actually mean Mass Balance and GreenPalm certificates, to cover palm oil derivative usages in the tens of thousands. In tonnes.
The only kind of solution I can suggest at this point is that the term “traceable” be used more often. You can throw “sustainable” at any tier of the system mentioned above and it will fit somehow, some way. But traceability? That can't really be finessed when it comes to Mass Balance or Book & Claim. This is why I have so many issues with the RSPO. To me, their methods can be abused so easily at the customer level. These stock phrases enable companies to lie by omission and count on you being unknowledgeable about palm oil and the processes surrounding it.
So, please, let's retire the phrase CSPO once and for all. Or at least, narrow the practices that can fall under the CSPO umbrella. When you write your next email asking about the sustainability of someone's palm oil, show your knowledge and use terms like 'segregated' and 'identity preserved.' Ask if they can trace the source of their palm oil from plantation to refinery to you. Be inquisitive.
Otherwise, grab a raincoat and try not to complain about your feet being wet.
🙈 Update, November 2018: The RSPO recently adopted a new zero deforestation policy, however, environmental groups have already begun to challenge this new standard. Find out why here. 🙈
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