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Truth in Labeling: Palm Oil, “Sustainability” & RSPO

Posted by: | April 1, 2013 Comments Off on Truth in Labeling: Palm Oil, “Sustainability” & RSPO |

However, the average consumer can have a difficult time avoiding palm oil.  Palm oil has several derivatives and thus labels may list it under many different names.  This makes it confusing for consumers who wish to avoid contributing to rainforest destruction and resultant greenhouse gas emissions by avoiding products made with palm oil.

In recent years, companies began marketing products that contain “sustainable” palm oil. Manufacturers and other companies that trade and sell palm oil founded the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).[3]  This group promises to source sustainably grown and harvested palm oil.  Some of the leading companies of the Roundtable include Nestle, Cargill, and ADM.[4]  However, problems abound in the organization’s membership requirements.

Membership to the RSPO does not hinge on proven sustainable practice.  The companies wishing to join simply apply, pay their dues, and gain a simple membership approval from the board.[5]  This means that companies can advertise their membership without actually having engaged in sustainable palm oil practices.  These loose standards equate to continued bad practice.[6]  They can further seek RSPO certification through a third party but unfortunately it is not clear how stringent the certification is considering the loose membership requirements.  The three words on RSPO’s website about certification are “People. Planet. Profit.”[7] The validity of the certification is questionable if profit is listed as a top goal.  The unsustainable practices provide much more profit.

Member companies continue to deforest protected peatlands, otherwise known as peat swamp forests, in Indonesia.[8]  Some are accused of human rights abuses such as land grabs.  Sometimes security forces protect the land for the companies.  This occasionally leads to disputes with local citizens and farmers, ending in death.[9] Despite all of the reports of bad practice, these companies remain on the active RSPO member list.  This shows that to be part of the RSPO, a company does not need proven sustainable practices.

Killings, illegal land clearing, peatland development moratoriums re-written,[10] these headlines do not read well for the palm oil industry.  A large U.S. buyer, Cargill, openly admitted to buying illegally sourced palm oil,[11] despite membership in the RSPO.  All of this bad behavior shows that membership cannot assure the consumer of positive environmental practices.  Yet the Ecolabel Index assures that products with the label have strictly verified sustainable practices.[12] Members seek certification for the label, but membership is not strictly enforced.  It is hard to know if the added certification assures better practices than those demonstrated by companies like Cargill, which source a vast majority of palm oil.

This green-washing of advertising RSPO membership is so pervasive one expert argues that if this continues the RSPO could become simply “an apologist for an environmentally destructive industry.”[13]  William Laurance of the Smithsonian Tropical Institute also mentions the lack of enforcement and oversight to ensure sustainable production practices on the ground.[14]  One example of this is the continued membership of the bad actors.  Cargill continues to enjoy RSPO membership despite sourcing illegally produced palm oil.  These companies may then continue to market themselves as RSPO members.  This practice and RSPO label therefore deceives consumers because it is hard to separate an RSPO label from advertisement of RSPO membership.  A label of RSPO membership could mislead consumers and therefore violate Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) Green Guidelines and Endorsement Guidelines.[15]

The FTC needs to analyze the RSPO “Ecolabel” because it has the potential to mislead consumers with its close ties to the lightly regulated RSPO membership.  If a consumer reads “sustainable palm oil used” on a product, how would they know of the true back-story of this commodity?  How could they understand the difference between that language and a line such as “member of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil?”  Unless someone does research on this issue, they would not know of the myth behind the use of “sustainable.”  This means companies can continue their destructive practices and still have a market for their products.

Consumers may associate some companies with less than ideal environmental practices.  For example some consumers may not associate environmental awareness with inexpensive packaged goods from RSPO member companies like Hershey’s and General Mills.  But what about Girl Scout cookies?  The Girl Scouts of the USA (GSUS) tout upholding high moral values.  Two girl scouts challenged GSUS on this value system when they saw palm oil in the ingredients list of most Girl Scout Cookies.[16]  For year, GSUS fought removal of palm oil from their cookies quoting RSPO membership as a sign of good practice.  However, these two pioneering girl scouts saw through this argument and continued their fight.  The UN awarded these two girl scouts with this year’s Forest Hero Award.[17]  In addition to this award, the UN urged GSUS to remove rainforest destroying palm oil from their cookies and to uphold GSUS’s purported values.

The RSPO membership requirements need to change.  It is not an adequate body to assure sustainable business practices and so any certified label with RSPO is also tainted.  Some propose moving palm oil production to Africa, where the crop originated.[18]  Greenpeace has a viable solution to move the industry towards sustainability:  impose a strictly enforced moratorium on forest and peatland conversion to palm plantations until a better and adequate growing system is in place.[19]  Unless a strict moratorium on rainforest deforestation is enforced, the bad practices will continue and nothing will change.  A new certification system is needed.  Consumers should not have to research through Indonesian newspapers for hours to know that the products they buy are destroying the rainforests.  A consumer should be able to look at a package and know that their product is sustainable if claimed.  Hopefully this change can happen before all Indonesian rainforests have disappeared.

[1] Orangutan Outreach, Palm Oil Fact Sheet, available at http://redapes.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/OO-PalmOilFactSheet.pdf(accessed).

[2] Id. (draining peatlands makes the carbon emissions increase even more)

[5] http://www.rspo.org/en/how_to_apply

[7] http://www.rspo.org/en/why_rspo_certification

[12] http://www.ecolabelindex.com/ecolabel/rspo-certified-sustainable-palm-oil

[14] Id.

[15] http://ftc.gov/os/2009/10/091005revisedendorsementguides.pdf

[17] Id.

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under: Food, International

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