Oil palm plantation

Sustainable palm oil in practice: recommendations for improving the assurance of RSPO

Sustainability of palm oil a key priority, given its impacts on biodiversity and its role as a highly productive, multiple use oil on the world market (IUCN, 2018). While the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) is a best in class tool to check on sustainability, its implementation should be improved. IUCN NL therefore assessed the assurance systems of RSPO in-the-field and made recommendations for improvement.

In 2019, IUCN NL compared the rigor of biodiversity and assurance requirements of the six voluntary sustainability standards with the largest market share in certified palm oil production. Based on this benchmark study, but also other –social- benchmark studies done, IUCN NL considers the RSPO standard as a ‘best in class’ voluntary standard for checking on palm oil sustainability.

Even so, its implementation in practice can and should be improved. IUCN NL therefore commissioned an independent study to support the RSPO in moving forward on assurance, especially by exploring various options for improving the quality and independence of audits.

Recommendations to RSPO

Based on the findings, IUCN NL made several recommendations to the Assurance Standing Committee of RSPO. These include:

  • an in-depth analysis of root causes behind assurance problems
  • learning from other examples of how to improve auditor quality and independence
  • the creation of a trust fund to assist the quality of auditing, for example with training and capacity building for workers or communities to better engage with the auditing process.

Assurance remains Achilles heel of policies

‘Assurance of implementation remains the Achilles heel of risk strategies of companies and financial institutions,’ says Heleen van den Hombergh, senior advisor agro commodities at IUCN NL. ‘Although assurance can be a challenge in sometimes difficult governance circumstances, it is key to RSPO uptake and trustworthiness over time.’

This issue is also relevant in face of upcoming EU legislation on due diligence, forest risk commodities and finance: how do you effectively control sustainability criteria in practice?

Recommendations to companies and financial institutions

In part, the improvement of quality is a matter of sufficient resources. Therefore, IUCN NL also calls on RSPO member companies, financial institutions and other actors interested in risk avoidance in palm oil to go beyond requiring the RSPO to perform well, and to actively support the RSPO to achieve better assurance, for example through the suggested trust fund.

Voluntary standards as examples and auxiliary tools

While improving RSPO uptake and the quality of its assurance can support risk mitigation in palm oil sourcing, investing and lending, voluntary standards alone are not enough. They should be complemented by the mandatory application of due diligence and sustainability criteria set by governments. IUCN NL therefore encourages the EU, as well as governments in producing countries, to set mandatory sustainability requirements. High-quality voluntary standards can serve as examples and auxiliary tools in legislation and its implementation.

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