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Consumer groups slam greenwashing in sustainable palm oil marketing

Consumer groups Palm Oil Investigations of Australia (POI) and Palm Oil Consumers Action (POCA) of the United States issued a joint statement against the green-washing that is prevalent among Western brands that use palm oil in their products. The problem, as they see it, includes confusing wording and suggestive statements used by companies that try...

Consumer groups Palm Oil Investigations of Australia (POI) and Palm Oil Consumers Action (POCA) of the United States issued a joint statement against the green-washing that is prevalent among Western brands that use palm oil in their products.

The problem, as they see it, includes confusing wording and suggestive statements used by companies that try to reassure their customers that the palm supply they use is sustainable. The main issue lies with the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) approval of a paper scheme for sustainable palm oil called Greenpalm certificates.

Oil Palm Concession
How to Make a Palm Oil Plantation: Complete Deforestation, photo courtesy of Hayden, Flickr Creative Commons

Greenpalm certificates — a program operated by Book & Claim, UK — was a scheme created when the RSPO was first established in 2004 by member company AarhusKarlshamn Group (AAK) as an option to support the production of sustainable palm oil. At the time, it made sense for palm oil users to buy into the scheme to show their support of sustainable palm oil.

In the eight years since the RSPO was formed, some of its members have taken great strides to work according to the organization’s principles and criteria to produce environmentally-sustainable palm oil. Producers including New Britain Palm Oil (NBPOL), Agropalma, Musim Mas, and Sime Darby have consistently met those standards, which are some of the toughest for vegetable oil production.

Some of the same producers have been quoted in recent months that the usefulness of Greenpalm Certificates is past its time. Nick Thompson, CEO of NBPOL, was especially critical of Greenpalm certificates in a statement made to Palm Oil Consumers Action group:

“Although we understand the theory behind Greenpalm certificate trading, we have always thought that because the associated claim is so weak, the value to any buyer would be correspondingly low and therefore represent too little incentive to the growers. This is exactly what has been happening and they now pretty much represent the price you pay for doing nothing and turning a blind eye! The value of certificates is pathetically low and the fact that such a massive percentage of Greenpalm certificates are being redeemed by a very small number of companies illustrates their lack of franchise in the market.”

Most participants are now realizing that mass balance is a much better way to go in that it allows critical players in a supply chain to understand just how close they are to being fully segregated. This means that when they get close to a tipping point (where the majority of the oil is actually certified sustainable palm oil, or CSPO), then it’s actually much easier for the supply chain to become fully segregated at very low cost. The costs of any segregation, then, really only apply when they have effectively become very small.

By contrast, in the opinions of POI and POCA, rather than encouraging this process, Greenpalm certificates just get in the way of traceable, efficient, and sustainable supply chains evolving. According to these organizations, Greenpalm is now an obstacle to a more sustainable industry rather than an aide.

Multinational brands, however, have been quick to jump on the opportunity to divert criticism with the use of this cheap alternative to physical sustainable palm oil. Costing approximately $3 per ton for palm oil or $20 per ton for palm kernel oil, it’s a cheap marketing alternative to physical sustainable palm oil, which runs at many times that cost depending on the product.

The consumer groups have challenged several brands before on their claims to be “sourcing sustainable palm oil” with the use of Greenpalm certificates.

Corporations including Unilever, Kellogg, and Avon products clearly state on their websites that they are “sourcing sustainable palm oil” through the use of these certificates.

“To me, its green-washing, plain and simple,” said LeAnn Fox from POCA. “ How can they claim to be sourcing sustainable palm oil when Greenpalm’s own website makes it very clear they can only claim to be supporting sustainable palm oil?”

Jaffa race - Cadbury palm oil protesters
Cadbury Palm Oil Protesters, photo courtesy of Samuel Mann, Flickr Creative Commons

The key difference between what the consumers are seeing and the reality are simply the words supporting and the brands’ use of the word sourcing to replace the former in public communications, which makes their statements look like intentional misinformation meant to confuse consumers.

The confusion can been seen in how American zoos are approaching the palm oil issue. Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, previously very critical of anything to do with palm oil, introduced a new app to identify the best choices for brands using palm oil. Unfortunately, these lists contain mostly brands that use Greenpalm certificates. The Philadelphia Zoo, on the other hand, has been harsh on the certificates in their blog:

“The main issue is that, while companies are paying for the sustainable certificates, they are not actually addressing their own palm oil supply chains or creating a demand for sustainable palm oil that is traceable to the source,” the zoo stated. “We have to be careful that GreenPalm [sic] certificates don’t become a way to relieve companies of accountability.”

Lorinda Jane from POI in Australia added further, “If the RSPO is serious about becoming a credible label for sustainable palm oil, they have to drop Greenpalm certificates, which most consumers consider a greenwash that does not address the serious problems in palm oil production.”

The RSPO would be wise to listen to consumers’ concerns. Uptake of their CSPO product has stagnated at 50 percent, and this has led to discontent among its members.

The Indonesian Palm Oil Association (GAPKI) cancelled its membership with the RSPO in 2011, stating in a thinly veiled criticism of the RSPO’s reputation and credibility that, “the Indonesian palm oil industries can move forward and will have a better image in the eyes of the world” without involvement in the program.

Their counterpart in Malaysia, the Malaysian Palm Oil Board (MPOA), has made similar statements, as rumors whirl around the creation of Malaysia’s own sustainable label under Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) and whether their members would be better off leaving the RSPO, as well.

Outspoken Director of the Malaysian Palm Oil Council Yusof Basiron went a step further by saying, “It’s pointless to produce more palm oil certified by the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) if it could not even gain access into France.”

Even their environmental founder, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), has been critical of what the RSPO actually means today and issued a scathing remark in its appraisal of the RSPO’s certified products: “It is unfortunately no longer possible for producers or users of palm oil to ensure that they are acting responsibly simply by producing or using Certified Sustainable Palm Oil.”

In a move that was widely seen as lack of confidence in the RSPO, the WWF has joined a new group of palm oil producers, Palm Oil Innovation Group, whose members are showing their frustration with the slow progress at the RSPO.

“The matter is quite simple,” said LeAnn Fox from POCA. “If we look at other certification bodies like the organic label or fair trade label, when you buy something that is organic or fairly traded, that’s what it is. No one else has offsets like the RSPO where brands could say we couldn’t find organic product so here’s a conventional one and the offset we bought to make it organic.”

Lorinda Jane from POI Australia states:

“Brands are taking advantage of the cheaper Greenpalm option and using it for long term supply, rather than making the vital switch to certified sustainable palm oil. When brands do not demand CSPO and rely instead on Greenpalm, then palm oil companies are not going to produce it; it’s that simple. Consumers are losing faith: The RSPO name is being used as nothing more than a marketing tool, no one knows if a brand is using certified palm oil or not, and it’s an absolute joke and a mess. RSPO needs to cease endorsing Greenpalm and cut ties if it’s going to gain any kind of credibility for their certification process. The RSPO is currently doing themselves a great disservice, and Australian consumers are wising up to it. We have not come across a single Australian brand that has not used the RSPO name in their palm oil greenwashing statements, yet we have only so far found a handful of brands that are in fact using certified palm oil.”

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