The future of commodities: pioneering change with the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO)

The production of everyday commodities, such as palm oil, seafood and timber can have a huge impact on the environment, affecting biodiversity, water and the climate.

Palm oil is one of the most frequently used commodities, found in half of all products in our supermarkets. It is also a controversial ingredient and its production comes with major environmental and social challenges. However, palm oil does have some significant benefits – it is the highest yielding vegetable oil, requiring less land to produce more, and it provides jobs for around six million people worldwide.

As part of a thought-provoking new series, The Future of Commodities, we are interviewing Stefano Savi, Global Outreach & Engagement Director of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) on how this multi-stakeholder platform is working to drive change in the global palm oil sector. 


1. What is the RSPO and why was it established?

RSPO is a not-for-profit, international membership organisation that unites stakeholders from the 7 sectors of the palm oil industry: oil palm producers, processors or traders, consumer goods manufacturers, retailers, banks/investors, and environmental and social non-governmental organisations (NGOs), to develop and implement global standards for sustainable palm oil.

The RSPO has developed a set of environmental and social Principles and Criteria (P&C), which companies must comply with to produce Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO). When they are properly applied, these criteria can help to minimise the negative impact of palm oil cultivation on the environment and communities in palm oil-producing regions. The RSPO has more than 3,700 members worldwide who represent the entire palm oil supply chain. They have committed to produce, source, and/or use sustainable palm oil certified by the RSPO.

2. How is the RSPO scaling impact in growing regions?

As of the 30th June 2017, RSPO certified plantations covered a total of 3.2 million hectares across 16 countries; an increase of 14% since the last reporting period. In the same period, Malaysia has made significant progress, with a 25% increase in certified land since 30 June 2016.

Indonesia and Malaysia still top the list of countries for total certified hectarage, but progress has been made in many regions, including Latin America and Africa.

Furthermore, a total of 189,777 hectares of High Conservation Value (HCV) area has been identified and is currently managed by RSPO members, an increase of 21% since the last reporting period. Some noteworthy trends are emerging at a regional level, including in Africa, where identified HCV area increased by 4,323%. Significant gains have also been made in the Asia-Pacific region, with a 152% increase in Malaysia, and a 228% increase across the rest of the region (not including Indonesia).

It’s also important to note the inclusion of smallholders into the RSPO system. RSPO has taken steps to significantly strengthen its support of smallholders through a variety of approaches. The RSPO Smallholder Support Fund (RSSF) makes it possible for palm oil smallholders around the world to achieve RSPO certification, without incurring the cost. Through RSPO certification, smallholders can increase their yields and remove the obstacles to reach international markets. Aside from the RSPO Smallholder Support Fund (RSSF), together with the United Nations Environment Project, we signed a small-scale funding agreement last year, which is expected to improve the livelihoods of at least 50,000 schemed and independent smallholders in Sabah and Seruyan.

3. What are some of the main lessons learnt along the way?

Key takeaways have come from RSPO having a stronger presence in emerging grower and producer markets like Africa and Latin America, as well as having a greater focus on smallholder inclusion. These lessons have echoed the need for us to work with our partners in these regions, to keep collaborations as inclusive as possible, with multi-stakeholder representation that considers all levels of the supply chain and affected communities. The reason for this is simple – global solutions cannot be imposed at a local context. Collaboration is key, and the focus must be on strengthening the dialogue between consuming and producing countries, understanding the complexity of local context, and helping to nurture an environment where solutions to local problems are created by local stakeholders, to address the global mission of making sustainable palm oil the norm.



4. What is the role of certification in transforming the sector and what are the main challenges?

The vision of RSPO is that of transforming the market to make sustainable palm oil the norm. RSPO has successfully brought stakeholders together to seek solutions to the challenges of the palm oil sector, creating a platform to transform how palm oil is produced, traded, and sold. RSPO has seen impressive growth and can now claim that approximately 20% of global palm oil production is certified in accordance with its Principles & Criteria, set forth in its global sustainable palm oil standard. Europe has moved significantly towards its 2020 targets of 100% certified palm oil. To reach scale and sustainability (the RSPO vision), the market needs to be more inclusive, competitive, innovative, transparent and resilient – proactively responding to risks and changes to transform as a sector. While the strategies used to date have worked to create a critical mass, “business as usual” is no longer a viable approach if RSPO is to remain relevant, let alone grow. We see a future where the standard practice is that palm oil is cultivated, traded and sold according to good sustainability principles, realising benefits for all stakeholders. This can be achieved through improved conservation, poverty reduction, sustainable livelihoods, valuing participation of communities, ensuring fair labour practices and economic viability of businesses.

5. How do you track progress to ensure change is being driven across the whole palm oil supply chain – from improved farmer livelihoods to increased consumer awareness?

RSPO has improved its Monitoring & Evaluation (M&E) System through the recent production of RSPO Theory of Change (ToC) to better articulate, manage, and measure progress towards this vision, provide insights into its effectiveness, and assess its long-term impact. The ToC provides a guiding framework for the Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) System to provide insight into the effectiveness of strategies and the supporting activities. Based on the ToC and causal chains, indicators are developed to monitor and evaluate progress from direct outputs, to outcomes and impacts on critical pathways, as well as to develop key evaluation questions. The indicators also use reference points such as the ISEAL common core indicators and the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Through monitoring and evaluation, RSPO will be able to assess progress, performance, and impact, as well as provide the evidence and insight to validate or negate assumptions.



6. What does a ‘climate-smart’ future for palm oil look like?

Ecosystems and their goods and services are conserved, protected, enhanced, and made resilient through sustainable consumption, production, and management of natural resources [sustainably managing forests, combating desertification, halting and reversing land degradation, halting biodiversity loss (SDG 15)]. Climate change is addressed through continuous GHG reductions, and air and water pollution are controlled.


Greenhouse PR takes great pride in working with pioneers who are helping to tackle some of the world’s biggest environmental issues. If your organisation has a story to tell, we’d love to hear from you.

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