Sustainable palm oil: Global investors call for stronger standards from RSPO

Sustainable palm oil: Global investors call for stronger standards from RSPO

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14 Aug 2018 — More than 90 institutional investors representing more than US$6.7 trillion in assets have called on the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) to strengthen its standards for certifying the sustainable production of palm oil. In a letter sent earlier this month to the RSPO, investors voiced their concerns over the group’s relevance and effectiveness and the current disconnect between corporate policy commitments and the RSPO’s Principles and Criteria Guidance. The investors outline specific recommendations to help bridge the gap.

“Our investment portfolios include companies that have significant exposure to deforestation risks and therefore, have made robust no-deforestation policies and strong commitments to sourcing sustainably certified palm oil,” the investors wrote. The letter, coordinated by the non-profit sustainability organization Ceres, urges the certification body to include stronger provisions for protecting high carbon stock forests, peat soils and the human rights of plantation workers. The RSPO is preparing to release its new guidance in November 2018. It will help to guide “sustainable palm oil production” for the next five years.

The RSPO, a multi-stakeholder sustainability certification body for the palm oil industry, is tasked with assuring that palm oil has been produced sustainably but has faced mounting pressure in recent years to strengthen its standards and enforcement. The current draft standards do not include robust protections for peatlands, high carbon stock forests and labor concerns – such as children’s and worker rights.

“To move from policy commitments to implementation, companies need assurance that their palm oil supplies are deforestation-free,” says Julie Nash, Director, Food and Capital Markets at Ceres. “Without that their businesses are vulnerable to reputation and market risks. This new guidance has the opportunity help companies implement no deforestation pledges, but it must meet industry norms for zero deforestation.”

Speaking to FoodIngredientsFirst, Nash notes that palm production continues to be a leading driver of deforestation. “Consumer campaigns and investor pressure to clean up palm oil production are not going away. That means that companies will face potential reputation and market risks that could impact their bottom lines. If RSPO does not match standards, companies will be forced to develop alternative paths for monitoring and verification of deforestation.”

Julie Nash, Director, Food and Capital Markets at Ceres

“It’s critical to get it right now because these standards will be locked in for the next five years, a critical time for climate stabilization. They will become the basis for enforcement protecting forests, carbon-rich peatlands, and human rights.”

“Standards need to evolve as supply chains and technology evolves,” she continues. “The maintenance of a robust standard for sustainable palm sourcing is essential to prevent deforestation and protect the rights of communities.”

“Investors are increasingly focusing on the material risks of deforestation that companies in their portfolios may be exposed to. Companies that source palm oil from suppliers that illegally destroy forests, or exploit workers, face material financial risks, such as reputational damage, regulatory action and loss of market access.”

As an example, palm oil giant IOI Group lost dozens of buyers when its certification from the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was suspended for compliance failures. “As a consequence, the trader’s share price dropped 18 percent, and its reputation was tarnished,” Nash notes.

Nineteen percent of the world’s palm oil is currently RSPO certified. Nash says that 100 percent of companies with exposure to palm oil need to have credible monitoring and verification mechanisms to ensure their products are deforestation-free.

“We want the RSPO to succeed,” says Adam Kanzer, Managing Director of Corporate Engagement, Domini Impact Investments LLC. “Companies, investors, consumers and local communities will all benefit from a single gold standard for sustainable palm oil.  Investors strongly support many of the proposed amendments to the P&C, but more work is needed to bring RSPO standards into compliance with corporate NDPE commitments, as well as relevant ILO Conventions on child labor. Questions also remain about the RSPO’s audit processes and grievance mechanisms. We look forward to working with the RSPO and its members to help ensure the market receives the reliable assurance it requires.”

The rapid expansion of the USS$37 billion palm oil industry has contributed to the destruction of rainforests, drainage of carbon-rich peatlands, and land conflicts with local communities. Palm production continues to be a leading driver of deforestation – which causes 10 percent of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. In fact, new data from the University of Maryland indicates that last year was the second-worst on record for tropical tree cover loss.

The timing of the RSPO standards review is especially relevant as companies strive to achieve their zero deforestation commitments by 2020, and governments seek to meet international pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in line with the Paris Agreement.

“Strengthening the RSPO standards is vitally important,” notes Beth Richtman, CalPERS managing investment director, sustainable investments. “Without stronger standards, deforestation and land rights abuses could continue in palm oil production leading to financial risks for investors. Without stronger standards, companies trying to lower their risk and improve the sustainability of their supply chains are operating in the dark. RSPO needs to be the bright light that incentivizes and guides the palm oil industry into one that is truly sustainable in all meanings of the word.”

Specific recommendations in the investor letter include:
• A ban on cutting down and planting on High Carbon Stock forests (as defined by the HCSA) and development of management plans for the conservation of HCS forests;
• Revised definition of peat soil and guidance on phasing out development or replanting on peat soils;
• Procedures and mechanisms to ensure the protection of human rights defenders from threats, intimidation and/or violence, aligned with the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders;
• Alignment with the Free and Fair Labor in Palm Oil Production Principles and Implementation Guidance, published by a broad coalition of NGOs.

“Investors and the companies in the palm oil supply chain are looking to the RSPO to catch up to the current state of play in the industry,” says Leslie Samuelrich, President of Green Century. “Without meaningful standards, companies will be forced to develop alternative paths for verification. Strengthened standards will benefit RSPO members, investors that support these members, and the environment.”

“The food industry should certainly be more concerned about whether it is sourcing palm oil that is truly deforestation-free and also free of human rights violations. This is why the RSPO standard needs to be as robust as the corporate ‘no deforestation, no peat, no exploitation’ commitments. A credible certification scheme provides consumer brands and retailers assurance that the palm oil they are sourcing is truly sustainable,” explains Nash.

In response to the criticism, the RSPO sent the following statement to FoodIngredientsFirst.

“In the current proposed draft of RSPO Principles & Criteria (P&C) 2018, the High Carbon Stock Approach (HCSA) is incorporated in totality where clear procedures and guidance are in place. The draft P&C goes further regarding its review of high forested landscapes and the rights of communities in these areas. Additional provisions are proposed in areas with high forested landscapes and where communities have clear community development needs identified through rigorous processes which include environmental and social protection principles.”

“While the HCSA is to be used in fragmented tropical forest landscapes, the HCSA platform itself has stated that they do not wish for the tool to be used to halt deforestation in High Forest Cover Landscapes (HFCLs). RSPO is in discussion with HCSA on how to align processes regarding legacy cases, smallholder contexts, and development on community lands.”

“Our P&C review process is designed to allow members and stakeholders alike the opportunity to provide input on proposed updates to our standards, including through two 60-day public consultation periods. In the first round of public consultation, we received more than 10,000 comments from stakeholders across all sectors of society. We anticipate that the second public consultation period for Draft 2 of the P&C 2018, which concluded on August 2nd, garnered as much, if not more. We welcome this diverse input and encourage it from all groups, including the signatories of the recent open letter.”

“All comments submitted are carefully considered, with final revisions decided according to an inclusive decision-making process. The membership and the P&C Taskforce of the RSPO aim to create a system that is feasible, equitable to all countries with palm oil industries, addresses the concerns of civil society and helps make sustainable palm oil the norm. To do that, we must collaborate with and gain consensus from our stakeholders, NGOs, growers, manufacturers and all others alike. In addition to reviewing the comments submitted related to our no deforestation standards, we are currently in active discussions with the High Carbon Stock Approach (HCSA).”

“Deforestation and carbon stock loss in carbon-rich areas such as Latin America, subtropical Asia and Africa are mainly caused by the expansion of intensive agriculture. Palm oil, soy and cattle grazing are among the top drivers behind this expansion. RSPO fully recognizes the challenge of reaching 100 percent sustainable palm oil cultivation that respects biodiversity, natural ecosystems, deforestation, local communities and workers in palm oil producing countries,” reads the statement.

Earlier this year, Nestlé was suspended from the RSPO for breaching its code of conduct and last month the food giant was reinstated after submitting its action plan to achieve 100 percent RSPO-certified sustainable palm oil by 2023. You can read more on this here.

By Elizabeth Green


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