Find out more about our Sustainable Palm Oil Transparency Toolkit (SPOTT) by clicking any of the frequently asked questions (FAQs) below. If you cannot find an answer to your question below, please ask us via our contact form and we will try our best to help you.

SPOTT Assessments




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SPOTT Assessments

What does a high score mean?

The main aim of SPOTT’s assessments is to provide a measure of a company’s overall transparency, including their commitment to social and environmental best practice. ZSL defines transparent information as information communicated by the company in publicly available materials that are freely and readily accessible to all stakeholders at no cost. Being more transparent is a vital component of environmental and social best practice.

A high score (i.e. >66%) indicates that the company is being transparent around their operations and their policies and commitments to environmental and social best practice, but this does not necessarily mean that the company is sustainable in terms of its impact on the ground. SPOTT does not score companies on whether they are putting their commitments to sustainability into action on the ground; however, SPOTT does feature interactive maps of company concessions and collates media stories on environmental issues (where available) to highlight potential risks that are currently too subjective to score.

We encourage all companies – not just those featured on SPOTT – to regularly report on their progress towards meeting their commitments. We urge SPOTT users – buyers and the financial sector, in particular – to engage with companies and scrutinise whether commitments are being implemented on the ground.

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Why does ZSL feature these 50 palm oil producing companies?

SPOTT assessments provide detailed snapshots of corporate transparency on sustainability issues. The current 50 companies on SPOTT represent around half of all landbank under oil palm cultivation and therefore their assessments provide industry stakeholders with a comprehensive overview of the state of the market, as well as specific insight into an individual company’s progress.

In order to develop an objective and efficient methodology for assessing oil palm growers, ZSL initially selected 25 oil palm growers based on their total market capitalization, using a publicly listed dataset of companies provided by Bloomberg on 1st October 2013.

Market capitalization was based on total company assets, not just those directly associated with palm oil, as companies are likely to attract investment based on the reputation of their entire operations. This is why companies such as Malaysia Airport Holdings are featured in SPOTT, alongside those which specialize in growing oil palm.

In 2015, ZSL expanded the selection methodology to include landbank hectarage size, in addition to updated market capitalization in 2015, and offered SPOTT users and stakeholders the opportunity to nominate oil palm growers for assessment.

The following companies were anonymously nominated by SPOTT users to feature on the scorecard:

Three companies have also volunteered to join SPOTT. Since the November 2014 launch of SPOTT, Agropalma Group became the first company to volunteer to join SPOTT in response to a request for growers to do so. Two additional companies have volunteered for assessment in 2015: PT Musim Mas Group and R.E.A Holdings plc.

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Why did ZSL select the 54 indicators in the framework?

SPOTT’s indicators focus on the palm oil industry’s main environmental impacts, reflecting and complementing the expectations set out in other environmental frameworks including the UN-supported Principles for Responsible Investment, Palm Oil Innovation Group, RSPO and others, on which ZSL underwent extensive consultation.

SPOTT also benefits from an ongoing Technical Advisory Group, who have provided invaluable guidance on the content and function of the website.

SPOTT focuses on the availability of publicly available company commitments to provide regularly updated snapshots of industry progress towards sustainability. ZSL plans to develop means of verifying that company commitments translate into meaningful implementation on the ground and will be undertaking further consultation in 2016 to develop additional indicators in order to capture this information.

Please see the Indicators and Research Protocols page for the full list of indicators, as well as how and where ZSL looks for the relevant information.

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How has the indicator framework changed as of October 2015?

ZSL has undertaken extensive consultation on the indicators used to assess companies in both 2014 and 2015. In order to reflect changes to the state of the industry in 2015, we included five additional indicators and further refined five existing indicators, increasing the maximum score to 56 points.

Original indicators in 2014-15 were:

  • 1.4.1. Has the company set any public targets to be 100% RSPO certified?
  • 1.7.1. Has the company set any public targets for its third party suppliers to be 100% RSPO certified?
  • 1.8.1. Has the company set any public targets set for scheme smallholders to be 100% RSPO certified?
  • 3.10.1. Does the company have a publicly available statement which phases out the use of WHO Class 1A and 1B pesticides and paraquat?
  • 3.11. Has the company been mentioned in any relevant media stories and reports linked to wildlife conflict within the company’s own plantation estates?

Amended indicators in 2015-16 are:

  • 1.4.1. Has the company RSPO-certified its first plantation estate within either of the following timeframes either a) by November 2010, or b) within three years of first holding plantation operations as an RSPO member?
  • 1.7.1. Have the first of the company’s independent FFB suppliers achieved RSPO-certification?
  • 1.8.1. Has the company RSPO-certified their first scheme smallholders?
  • 3.8. Does the company have a publicly available commitment to not use WHO Class 1A and 1B pesticides and paraquat, or time-bound plan for phasing out their use?
  • 3.9. Has the company been mentioned in any relevant media stories and/or reports that make reference to wildlife conflict or deforestation within the company’s plantation estates and/or its scheme smallholders’ or independent FFB suppliers’ plantations?

New indicators in 2015-16 are:

  • 1.10. Does the company have any open complaints filed through the RSPO complaints system?
  • 3.4.2. Has the company publicly committed to only using licensed High Conservation Value (HCV) assessors accredited by the HCV Resource Network’s Assessor Licensing Scheme (ALS)?
  • 3.5. Has the company publicly committed to applying a High Carbon Stock (HCS) methodology to all of their landholdings and not developing on HCS areas?
  • 6.4. Has the company made a public commitment to report and to reduce effects from Palm Oil Mill Effluent (POME)?
  • 6.5. Has the company made a public commitment to eliminate methane emissions from all of its palm oil mills?

Please see how company scores changed against the new and amended indicators on the Updates page.

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How often does ZSL update the assessments?

To keep SPOTT relevant and reward companies who are becoming increasingly more transparent, SPOTT assessments are updated on a biannual basis (i.e. every six months). Some indicators are updated on an ad-hoc basis, such as those relating to media stories, depending on their frequency and relevance.

ZSL aims to constructively engage with all companies featured on SPOTT to encourage greater ownership and dissemination of key information in the public domain, leading to improved assessment scores and building trust in a sustainable palm oil industry.

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Why are there some non-scoring indicators?

SPOTT’s indicators aim to be as objective and impartial as possible, while attempting to provide an accurate reflection of varying approaches to corporate sustainability and transparency. Some indicators are non-scoring to avoid subjectivity in assessments, for example, by featuring reports in the media monitor that may not be fully substantiated. We encourage users to contact companies directly regarding the validity of content in the media monitor as ZSL does not assess this.

SPOTT still displays and organises this information on company pages to increase its accessibility, and alongside the SPOTT mapping tool, they provide users with the opportunity to assess whether commitments are being implemented in reality.

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Why are some company scores adjusted?

ZSL disables specific SPOTT indicators for certain companies to avoid penalising them unfairly when such indicators do not apply to their operations, and their maximum scores are adjusted accordingly. These instances include where companies:

  1. do not have scheme smallholders and/or source from independent fresh fruit bunch (FFB) suppliers
  1. do not have areas of High Conservation Value (HCV)
  1. are in their first year of RSPO membership

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Why is ZSL only focusing on RSPO certification? What about other standards?

SPOTT is not tied to a specific certification standard, but it is committed to supporting globally agreed expectations of environmental best practice. The RSPO is currently the most inclusive certification standard, in that it holds over 1,000 ordinary members, of which more than 120 are growers.

ZSL believes that all RSPO growers should meet the RSPO standard as a minimum, and that they can also go beyond the RSPO standard (e.g. RSPO Next, POIG, IPOP). SPOTT is intended to help growers with that progression.

RSPO is only one of the seven categories in the SPOTT indicator framework, and other certification standards may inspire new categories for future versions of SPOTT. ZSL has cross-referenced the indicator framework against these data sets and will continue to do so to determine a positive level of alignment. These include, but are not limited to:

Please follow the link for more information on palm oil certification standards.

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What are ACOPs?

The RSPO Annual Communications of Progress (ACOP) reports are yearly requirements for all RSPO Ordinary and Affiliate members, as specified in the Code of Conduct. They allow the RSPO and stakeholders to assess members’ plans, actions and progress towards certification.

The 40 RSPO members in SPOTT are assessed on whether they have submitted their most recent ACOP report to the RSPO and the information contained therein.

Please click here for more information on the RSPO ACOPs.

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What additional data has ZSL requested from companies to submit in their ACOPs?

Following the GA10-Resolution 6g adopted at RSPO RT11, ZSL contacted the first 25 oil palm growers featured in SPOTT in June 2014 to introduce them to the project and request that they submit their concession site boundary maps, and those pertaining to their scheme smallholders, as well as their palm oil mill locations. Please see the full text of the data request. RSPO now requests the map data directly from RSPO member companies, while SPOTT only requests it directly from non-RSPO member companies.

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What are HCVs?

There are currently six High Conservation Values (HCVs), as defined by the HCV Resource Network:

  • HCV 1 – Species diversity. Concentrations of biological diversity including endemic species, and rare, threatened or endangered species, that are significant at global, regional or national levels.
  • HCV 2 – Large landscape level ecosystems and mosaics that are significant at global, regional or national levels and that contain viable populations of the great majority of the naturally occurring species in natural patterns of distribution and abundance
  • HCV 3 – Rare, threatened, or endangered ecosystems, habitats or refugia.
  • HCV 4 – Basic ecosystem services in critical situations, including protection of water catchments and control of erosion of vulnerable soils and slopes.
  • HCV 5 – Sites and resources fundamental for satisfying the basic necessities of local communities or indigenous peoples (for livelihoods, health, nutrition, water, etc.), identified through engagement with these communities or indigenous peoples.
  • HCV 6 – Sites, resources, habitats and landscapes of global or national cultural, archaeological or historical significance, and/or of critical cultural, ecological, economic or religious/sacred importance for the traditional cultures of local communities.

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What does FPIC stand for?

Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) is the principle that communities have the right to give or withhold their agreement to proposed projects that may affect the land they customarily own, occupy or otherwise use. For more information, please see the Forest Peoples Programme page on FPIC.

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Where are SPOTT’s social and human rights indicators?

As a wildlife conservation charity, ZSL’s expertise is focused on environmental monitoring and wildlife management; however, we recognise the importance of human rights, employment rights, and other social issues to develop a sustainable palm oil industry.

SPOTT’s Indicators and Research Protocols highlight company commitments to obtain Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) for affected communities and indigenous peoples, and that Social and Environmental Impact Assessments (SEIA) will be undertaken to identify and evaluate the potential socio-economic and cultural impacts of a proposed development.

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What has happened to the map related indicators?

Following the GA10-Resolution 6g adopted at RSPO RT11, ZSL and the World Resources Institute (WRI) requested that oil palm growers submit their concession site boundary maps, (as well as those of their scheme smallholders) and palm oil mill locations.

Due to legal issues around publishing oil palm concession boundary maps in Indonesia and Malaysia, ZSL temporarily disabled three map related indicators for all featured companies in October 2015:

  • 2.3.1. Are all of the company’s concession maps publicly available for all countries in which they operate?
  • 2.3.2. Are all of the company’s scheme smallholders’ concession maps publicly available for all countries in which they operate?
  • 7.1. Are all of the company’s mill locations publicly available for all countries in which it operates?

This resulted in score changes in the Landbank and Traceability categories for the majority of companies. The indicators were re-enabled in October 2016 affecting scores again and total percentage. However, ongoing legal issues around the publication of maps still remain. In light of this, numerous companies have been scored on their maps submissions to the RSPO, although this map data is not yet publicly available.

SPOTT is continuing to monitor the situation relating to the availability of maps and will update the website when more information is available.

What are the “SPOTT company” oil palm concessions data?

SPOTT features transparency assessments of 50 palm oil producing companies, and displays their concessions (where available) on the SPOTT map using data provided by Global Forest Watch from the World Resources Institute (WRI). These are divided into two layers:

  • Company disclosures (purple), concessions submitted to WRI and ZSL following RSPO GA10 Resolution 6g
  • Government maps (orange), concessions attributed to companies based on government data (where available)

Percentages in parentheses after each layer indicate approximately how much land (in hectares) has been disclosed or not yet disclosed by companies.

What are the “Other” sources of oil palm concessions data?

The “other oil palm concessions” layers refer to maps for either 1) concessions certified by the RSPO currently in Brazil, Indonesia, Malaysia and Papua New Guinea, or 2) government data on concessions in Cameroon, Republic of Congo, Indonesia and Liberia. These data are provided by Global Forest Watch.

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What does the transparency bar do?

The transparency bar allows you to see beneath specific overlapping layers by dragging the slider to the left.

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Why are your primary forest data only for Indonesia?

As provided by Global Forest Watch, primary forest data are currently available only from the Indonesian government. Download the full dataset here. We will provide additional data as they become available.

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How do the NASA fire alerts work?

Fire hotspots are detected by NASA’s Fire Information for Resource Management System (FIRMS). This tool enables growers to inform stakeholders of the cause of the fire, as well as adaptive management steps taken to mitigate against any threats and risks. We will provide additional data as it becomes available.

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How do we know companies are doing what they say they are?

It can be difficult to be sure that the policies and practices companies say they are pursuing are actually being put into practice on the ground. SPOTT features an interactive mapping tool for a satellite view of oil palm concession sites of companies on the SPOTT scorecard and elsewhere by drawing on data from Global Forest Watch Commodities. The map allows users to identify specific company concessions or mill locations, as well as protected areas, Indonesia’s primary forest cover from 2005, tree cover loss alerts since 2015, and active fires within the past week to 24 hours.

These data may offer important insights into whether companies are implementing their commitments on the ground, as indications of forest loss and fires at high confidence provide opportunities to assess if companies are complying with RSPO criteria.

If companies release their data to the public, it would be much easier to monitor the industry and determine whether companies were violating the rules of the RSPO. However, many companies have yet to disclose their concession maps.

Indonesian companies are often blamed for forest fires in the region, and in 2013 Greenpeace linked half of the fires that occurred in Indonesia to plantations, 39% of those being members of the RSPO. Greenpeace was accused of basing this assessment on incomplete concession maps, but despite growers feeling wrongly blamed, they are still resisting pressure to hand over their maps. Mongabay revealed that many growers fear that making their data publicly available will make them more susceptible to extortion, and there is now a legal battle taking place over whether concession maps can legally be handed over.

Oil palm concession map of companies featured on the SPOTT scorecard

Oil palm concession map of companies featured on the SPOTT scorecard

Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) also play a role in monitoring companies against their commitments, and often work to expose companies who are not following the sustainability criteria that they have committed to. Greenpeace recently exposed an RSPO certified Malaysian grower for illegal deforestation, going against their commitments as an RSPO member. This led to the company being dropped by a number of large manufacturers, and will hopefully encourage other growers to ensure they are acting responsibly.

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About Sustainable Palm Oil

Why don’t we just stop buying palm oil?

Palm oil has the potential to be a more economically viable and sustainable vegetable oil than the alternatives:

1. It uses five to 10 times less land than other major vegetable oils such as rapeseed or sunflower
2. It uses less fertiliser and pesticides than alternative oils
3. It can be harvested all year round
4. It produces higher yields per hectare than many other oils – for example one hectare of land can produce 4000kg palm oil, compared to 500kg of kernel oil
5. The palm oil industry employs more than 3.5 million people in Indonesia
6. It accounts for 4.5% of Indonesian GDP

However, industry expansion cannot continue if production continues to be unsustainable. By boycotting products that contain unsustainable palm oil but buying products which contain sustainable palm oil, shoppers can drive the change for sustainable production and support producers making this change.

Watch WWF’s video on sustainable palm oil production here.

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What is certified sustainable palm oil?

Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO) is produced by plantations that adhere to a strict set of environmental, social and economic criteria. The RSPO is the world’s leading certification body for sustainable palm oil, although other certification bodies do exist (see question 4).

Products which contain RSPO CSPO will bear the RSPO logo.

RSPO logo

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What is a sustainable plantation?

A sustainable plantation is one that adheres to the principles and criteria of the RSPO (or other certification body). These cover globally agreed environmental, social and economic standards regarding the operation and management of a plantation. They ensure that fundamental rights of previous land owners, local communities, plantation workers, small farmers and their families are respected and fully taken into account, that no new primary forests or high conservation value areas have been cleared for palm oil production since November 2005, and that mills and plantation owners minimize their environmental footprint.

Plantations must be independently audited to ensure they comply with the principles and criteria before they can be certified.

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was established in 2004 to promote the production and use of sustainable palm oil. Over 20% of palm oil is RSPO certified, and 40% of the world’s palm oil producers are now RSPO members, as well as many product manufacturers, retailers, environmental and social non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

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What measures prevent deforestation from new oil palm plantations?

The RPSO has criteria in place for its members to ensure the responsible development of new plantings. Since 2005, new plantations can only be certified as sustainable if planted on land that was not converted from primary or High Conservation Value (HCV) forest, as covered under Principle 7 of the RSPO’s Principles and Criteria (P&C) – Responsible Development of New Plantings.

The RPSO also established its New Planting Procedures (NPP) in 2010, which consists of a set of assessments and verification activities to be conducted by growers and certification bodies prior to a new oil palm development being established, in order to help guide responsible planting and to ensure that any new developments do not negatively impact primary forest, High Conservation Values (HCV), High Carbon Stock (HCS), fragile and marginal soils or local people’s lands.

For more information on the RPSO’s New Planting Procedures see the sustainable plantation page.

What are the different certification bodies for a sustainable plantation?

Certification schemes have become one of the most popular mechanisms for establishing market preference for sustainable goods. They verify that an organisation has achieved a certain standard.

Palm oil can be certified under a number of different agricultural certification schemes. These vary in their origins but all address key sustainability issues.

Two certification schemes currently dominate: the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) and the International Sustainability and Carbon Certification (ISCC) system. The RSPO is the main certification standard for the use of palm oil and its fractions in food and oleo-chemicals. It uses a multi-stakeholder, business-to-business model to encourage the adoption of sustainable practices by members (particularly producers) and promotes the uptake of certified sustainable palm oil internationally.

The ISCC is based on the European Union’s Renewable Energy Directive (RED) and German sustainability ordinances (BioNachV) and is the predominant certification scheme for palm oil used as a feedstock for biofuels. It includes a rigorous carbon accounting mechanism, which documents energy inputs and greenhouse gas outputs to ensure that biofuels are truly sustainable.

In 2009 the Indonesian Government launched the Indonesian Sustainable Palm Oil (ISPO) standard. Based on existing Indonesian legislation, it is designed to ensure that all Indonesian oil palm growers, not just those exporting to foreign markets, conform to higher agricultural standards. It is the first national standard of its kind, and other countries have now begun to consider implementing similar standards to ensure sustainable practices among all palm oil producers.

Other standards available to companies in the palm oil arena include the Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN) and the Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels (RSB). Global GAP, Fairtrade, and Organic are all commonly used for agricultural commodities and focus their efforts on key topics, such as labour rights and the use of chemicals in agriculture.

More information about the standards available can be found here.

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What can I do to support sustainable palm oil?

As a consumer, there is a lot that can be done to encourage the production of certified sustainable palm oil. Although it can often be tough to navigate the complexities of product labelling, ingredient lists, and the many different certification logos on hundreds of everyday products on supermarket shelves, by supporting the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) certified sustainable palm oil (CSPO) consumers can help transform the industry from harmful to sustainable.

  • Look out for products bearing the RSPO Trademark, which show that they contain a minimum 95% of CSPO.

RSPO logo

  • Support companies that have made commitments to using only certified sustainable palm oil.
  • Ask retailers to source certified sustainable palm oil, not only in their own-brand products but in all the products they sell. You can do this by contacting their customer service departments.
  • Ask manufacturers to source certified sustainable palm oil.
  • Ask your local restaurants to source certified sustainable palm oil.
  • Lobby your parliamentary or government representative to improve national legislation.
  • Join or support organisations that are actively campaigning for better standards.
  • Increase your own awareness of what is in your food.

Consumer choices can have an indirect impact on communities, wildlife, and the environment. Through informed choice, consumer demand can influence retailers towards providing products that are manufactured to higher environmental and social standards. This demand ultimately works its way along the entire supply chain to growers, who must then respond by adopting best practices for sustainable production; Unilever provides an excellent example of this, when in 2008 they listened to the demands of tens of thousands of consumers to source palm oil produced sustainably without causing deforestation and responded by supporting calls for a moratorium on rainforest destruction in Indonesia.

It is important that we all lend our support to this change in order to encourage and support growers doing the right thing, which can be costly and challenging to implement.

A few resources are provided below:

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Ho do I know if a product contains palm oil?

If you’re not sure if a product contains palm oil you can check the ingredient list – palm oil can appear as one of the many names listed below:

These ingredients are definitely palm oil or derived from palm oil:
Cetyl Palmitate
Elaeis Guineensis
Epoxidized Palmitate
Hydrated Palm Glycerides
Octyl Palmitate
Palm Oil
Palm Fruit Oil
Palm Kernel
Palm Kernel Oil
Palm Stearine
Palmitic Acid
Palmityl Alcohol
Palmitoyl Oxostearamide
Palmitoyl Tetrapeptide-3
Saponified Elaeis Guineensis
Sodium Kernelate
Sodium Palm Kernelate
Sodium Palmate

These ingredients are either derived from palm oil or coconut oil:
Cetyl Alcohol
Fatty alcohol sulphates
Isopropyl or Isopropyl Palmitate
Sodium Dodecyl Sulphate (SDS or NaDS)
Sodium Isostearoyl Lactylaye
Sodium Laureth Sulfate (in almost everything that foams)
Sodium Lauryl Sulfate
Sodium Lauryl Sulfoacetate

These ingredients are often derived from palm oil, but could be derived from other vegetable oils:
“Other vegetable oils” (may include palm oil)
Cocoa Butter Equivalent (CBE)
Cocoa Butter Substitute (CBE)
Emulsifiers (some can be palm oil derived)
Glyceryl Stearate
Sodium Lauryl Lactylate
Steareth -2
Steareth -20
Steareth -21
Steareth Acid

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Environmental Impacts of Palm Oil Production

What are the environmental criteria for a sustainable plantation?

The RSPO’s Principles and Criteria are based on the following:

  • Commitment to transparency
  • Compliance with applicable laws and regulations
  • Commitment to long term economic and financial viability
  • Use of appropriate best practices by growers and millers
  • Environmental responsibility and conservation of natural resources and biodiversity
  • Responsible consideration of employees, and of individuals and communities affected by growers and mills
  • Responsible development of new plantings
  • Commitment to continuous improvement in key areas of activity

These criteria cover environmental, social and economic issues.


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What can companies do to reduce their environmental impacts?

Growers can manage and mitigate the environmental impacts resulting from their operations through a combination of risk assessment, the careful monitoring of their activities, and the development and implementation of comprehensive management plans and best management practices.


By becoming certified producers of sustainable palm oil, companies can prove that they are following a set of criteria which reduce their environmental impacts.

Deforestation and biodiversity

Oil palm growers can incorporate a number of approaches into land procurement and preparation to ensure their operations are not driving deforestation

  • Identify and protect areas of High Conservation Value (HCV). HCV areas include those containing rare or endemic species, endangered ecosystems, or areas containing important local food resources. Identifying, maintaining and enhancing areas with one or more HCVs are requirements of the RSPO. This requires the assessment and subsequent monitoring and management of HCV areas to ensure long term conservation benefits.
  • Plant on already degraded land. Currently, selling the timber from logging forests to plant oil palm is a financial incentive for companies to continue planting on forest. However, oil palm can flourish in rehabilitated agricultural land or land that has already been degraded. Preparing disused agricultural land for plantations is more expensive than selling the timber from forests, so other incentives will need to be developed for this to occur.
  • Create buffer zones. Fragmented forest patches deteriorate in quality over time due to ‘edge effects’ and smaller forest patches support lower levels of biodiversity. It is therefore important to consider the size and shape of set asides, as well as ensuring areas are protected by buffer zones.
  • Establish conservation corridors. It is important for growers to think at a landscape level. Conservation corridors, or ‘stepping stones’ of suitable habitat, throughout a plantation can maintain landscape connectivity and significantly enhance conservation benefits.
  • Establish Riparian reserves. These function as wildlife corridors and are also a key measure for protecting local water systems and the biodiversity associated with them – one study found that total species richness was 36% lower in streams without riparian reserves (Giam et al. 2015).
  • Carry out Social and Environmental Impact Assessments (SEIAs). SEIAs evaluate how grower activities could affect local communities of wildlife and what measures could be taken to reduce these impacts.

Pesticide use

To minimise or eliminate the use of pesticides in their plantations and the impacts on the surrounding areas, companies can develop and implement integrated pest management plans (IMPs). These may include measures such as the use of natural predators to reduce rat populations and the planting of certain cover crops which discourage insect pests from breeding.

Palm Oil Mill Effluent (POME)

The most environmentally damaging by-product of the milling process is palm oil mill effluent (POME), which is a hot, acidic waste product that contains oil, plant debris, and nutrients. The majority of mills use open air ponding systems to store POME, which as well as being a major source of water pollution results in substantial greenhouse gas emissions, particularly of methane. The installation of methane capture facilities at mills, such as demonstrated by Musim Mas, can significantly reduce methane emissions. This involves sealing POME treatment ponds to capture methane, which can be used subsequently as an alternative fuel to diesel. The development and implementation of water management plans can also address these negative impacts.

Human-Wildlife Conflict (HWC)

HWC can be avoided and reduced through understanding the behaviour and movement of wildlife. Once it is understood which species are involved, measures can be taken to prevent HWC, including protecting sufficient habitat, providing alternative food sources for wildlife, and creating buffer zones or barriers between plantations and conservation areas. Translocation of wildlife can be considered as a last resort.

HWC can also further expose species to the illegal wildlife trade, as the infants of animals killed on or near plantations are sold for a profit. The illegal hunting of endangered wildlife in plantations is a common problem, particularly within set-aside areas of high conservation value (HCV), and this is worsened by the construction of roads and other infrastructure as it opens up previously inaccessible areas of forest for poachers. The regular monitoring of HCV areas can identify threat hotspots or areas particularly prone to poaching.

Burning and emissions

Clearing and burning forests and draining carbon-rich peatlands to make land available for oil palm plantations is a significant source of emissions. Oil palm plantations less than 20% of the above ground carbon held in primary forests. As peatlands are drained of water, peat layers become exposed and the peat is oxidised, leading to substantial carbon emissions. Furthermore, deforestation and the draining of peat make land more susceptible to fire. This, in tandem with the practice of using fire to clear land, greatly increases emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants.

Growers can ensure their operations do not drive emissions from land use change by developing and implementing policies to address deforestation, as well as for zero burning, zero planting on peat, and by ensuring plantation expansion takes place on degraded land and not areas classified as high carbon stock (HCS).

Optimise yield

In Indonesia, palm oil yields averaged 3-4 tonnes/ha, however, various estimates of potential yields are up to 8.6 tonnes/ha. Increasing the yield of palm oil production gives countries the potential to increase their production without requiring additional land conversion. One strategy is to breed and grow oil palms that produce several times as much oil from the same amount of land. An increase in production of 20% could produce an additional 3.7 million tonnes of palm oil in Indonesia, equivalent to the current production from around 1.07 million hectares.

For more case studies of what some producers are doing to mitigate their environmental impacts view the case studies page.

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What is the problem with monoculture plantations for wildlife?

Monoculture plantations are plantations that contain only 1 crop species – in this case oil palm. This lack of species diversity and landscape variation means that monoculture oil palm plantations do not support the same levels of biodiversity as forest; research shows that plantations support just 47% of biodiversity found in primary tropical forest and 15-30% of forest species.

Oil palm requires a lot of natural light therefore any other vegetation growing in the area has to be cleared. Plantations are most often large homogenous areas that are structurally less complex than natural forests. Their uniform tree-age structure and lower canopy contributes to a less stable microclimate. Plantations are also regularly subjected to human disturbance through the 25 to 30 year rotation of clearing and replanting.

These monocultures are therefore insufficient habitats for most species, especially those of higher conservation value which generally have very specific habitat requirements and are found in low abundance.

A monoculture oil palm plantation in Indonesia, © Achmad Rabin Taim

A monoculture oil palm plantation in Indonesia, © Achmad Rabin Taim

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What are the business risks to growers from negative environmental impacts?

The environmental risks of palm oil production create a number of business risks to growers and their supply chain and financial stakeholders.


  • Addressing the environmental impacts of palm oil production is important for ensuring the sustainability of company operations as the adverse effects of production can ultimately negatively impact plantation productivity.
  • For example, the adoption and implementation of zero burning policies is important for minimising the resulting haze and air pollution that can directly impact productivity and crude palm oil output.
  • Similarly, companies can minimise their contribution to greenhouse gas emissions and protect against poor productivity by not planting on peat. The draining of peat soil and the resulting subsidence can expose oil palm roots, leading to their collapse, or can lead to the planted area becoming lower than surrounding non-peat areas with the risk that oil palms will become submerged and damaged.


  • The palm oil industry can be impacted if it does not keep pace with changing regulations that require sustainability improvements. For example, biodiesel demand is predominantly driven by the sustainability benefits associated with its comparatively lower emissions than regular diesel.
  • However, demand for this could decrease with the introduction of regulations that recognise the potential risks of emissions being higher when production has been linked to tropical deforestation and therefore substantial emissions from land-use change.


  • There is a reputational risk associated with environmentally harmful operations.
  • The exposure of consumer-facing brands in particular as being linked to environmental destruction through their supply chains is extremely damaging to a company’s reputation.
  • This is evidenced through the powerful lobbying actions of NGOs, such as Greenpeace’s campaign against Nestlé in 2010, which associated its ‘Kit Kat’ brand with the destruction of valuable orangutan habitat.
  • Manufacturers have commonly been the target of campaigns of this nature; however the financial sector has come under increasing pressure to take responsibility in recent years, while producers themselves can also suffer from similar reputational damage.
London, Nestle HQ, protestors descend on the London HQ of Nestle after the company was revealed to be involved in rainforest destruction ©Rezac/Greenpeace

London, Nestle HQ, protestors descend on the London HQ of Nestle after the company was revealed to be involved in rainforest destruction ©Rezac/Greenpeace


  • Responding to sustainability challenges presents growers with significant market opportunities. This includes commitments to sourcing sustainable, deforestation-free palm oil. Growers can ensure continued market access by meeting the sustainable sourcing policies of their buyers.


  • The environmental risks of palm oil production can ultimately become financial risks if the company does not properly address them. For example, losing market access by not meeting the sustainability requirements of buyers can have an impact on company profits. Similarly, responding to legal risks associated with unsustainable production can have significant costs.
  • WWF’s study on Profitability and Sustainability in Palm Oil Production analyses the relationship between risks caused by unsustainable production and the commercial value of a palm oil business. It shows that implementing the RSPO’s Principles and Criteria has financial benefits.

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What are organisations doing to combat environmental impacts?

A lot of research has been done into how palm oil plantations can be managed to reduce their environmental impacts and work is being done by non-governmental organisations and research groups to help lessen the negative effects palm oil production is having on the environment.

For example, Flora and Fauna International (FFI) are looking at ways to create incentives to protect HCV’s within oil palm landscapes in Indonesia through engaging companies, communities and goverments in REDD+. REDD+ projects can provide oil palm companies with income to pay for the management of their HCVs, as well as meet the tax requirements. It can help them achieve Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) commitments, achieve other sustainability agenda targets, and improve company relations with nearby village communities.

Many NGO’s are also working to raise awareness of these issues. Philadelphia Zoo’s UNLESS Campaign is a five-year initiative designed to raise awareness of the connection between palm oil and orangutans and drive the market for sustainable palm oil by sharing consumer feedback with manufacturers related to their commitment to use 100% certified sustainable palm oil (CSPO) by 2015.

For some more examples visit SPOTTs case studies page.

There are also many research projects being undertaken on the environmental impacts of palm oil and management techniques. The South East Asia Rainforest Research Partnership (SEARRP) works in close collaboration with leading international universities and local partners to facilitate research and manage a suite of large-scale field experiments (the SAFE Project, Sabah Biodiversity Experiment and a 50 ha CTFS plot) that seek to address the major environmental issues facing the tropics – plantation development, habitat restoration and climate change.

Other research projects can be found here.

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What are governments doing to combat environmental impacts?

In the producing countries of palm oil governments can play a key role in mitigating the impacts of the industry. The Indonesian president has announced a moratorium on developing new palm oil concessions on primary forests and peatlands. The move is aimed at protecting the countries biodiversity. This should drive companies to focus on increasing productivity from their plantations instead of expanding them.

Importing countries also play a crucial role. In 2010 the Norwegian government offered Indonesia $1bn to reduce the country’s deforestation. This came after a similar incentive was given to Brazil in 2008, with the country successfully slowing their rates of deforestation. Oslo also funds non-government organisations that encourage villages to use the forest more sustainably.

Governments can also commit to sourcing sustainably produced palm oil. The UK government committed to ensuring only certified sustainable palm oil was used in the UK by 2015. Whilst this has not been met as of yet, progress is being made, but continuous monitoring is required to ensure these targets are met.

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Social Impacts of Palm Oil Production

What are the social criteria for a sustainable plantation?

The RSPO’s Principles and Criteria are based on the following:

  • Commitment to transparency
  • Compliance with applicable laws and regulations
  • Commitment to long term economic and financial viability
  • Use of appropriate best practices by growers and millers
  • Environmental responsibility and conservation of natural resources and biodiversity
  • Responsible consideration of employees, and of individuals and communities affected by growers and mills
  • Responsible development of new plantings
  • Commitment to continuous improvement in key areas of activity

These criteria cover environmental, social and economic issues.


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What can companies do to reduce their social impacts?

By becoming certified producers of sustainable palm oil, companies can prove that they are following a set of criteria which reduce their social impacts.

A few studies have been done which highlight other methods that plantation owners could use to reduce their social impacts. The University of Reading looked at the social impacts of a proposed large scale oil palm concession in Liberia. Their research showed that villagers in Bopolu District, Gbarpolu County, drew resources for their livelihoods from deep within the forest, often walking 2 to 3 hours into the forest to hunt for bush meat or collect timber to sell, and often farming land within a 1 hour walk of their homes. This report suggests that establishing buffer zones of 1 to 4 km around towns and villages would allow local people to continue to hunt for food and grow crops close to their homes and therefore would not have to move.

On top of social impact assessments that are carried out under RSPO guidelines, an in depth review should be undertaken on the community resource use through community consultations, as well as a comprehensive assessment of ecosystem services, to identify the size and location of potential areas that should be conserved as buffer zones for local communities.

Efforts should be provided to ensure that any displaced communities still have access to basic services such as education and health care, and alternative employment opportunities should be made available to those of all ages, not just men.

Sources of Discontent

Sources of Discontent

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What are the business risks to growers from negative social impacts?


  • Conflict over land tenure rights can create significant financial risks for companies
  • Delayed operations – local opposition such as complaints, roadblocks, riots, sabotage and violent conflicts can lead to delays and bring about additional investment. A study by The Munden Project shows that operating costs can increase as much as 29 times above normal.
    • An example of this is Sime Darby’s oil palm plantation in Liberia which has been continually disrupted by land tenure disputes. There was no proper consultation with the local population and they were not appropriately compensated. The lack of an official complaints system led them to take matters into their own hands, starting a riot, damaging equipment and endangering Sime Darby employees. This disruption led to direct losses and may cause investors to view this operation as risky, potentially leading to reduced investment.
  • Forced withdrawal – persistent delays and disruptions may lead to a company withdrawing from a project entirely. This could be because regular disruption impairs the commercial viability of the project, or the government decides to deny access to the project due to massive local opposition.
Protest outside the Kuala Lumpur Kepong (KLK) head office in Ipoh demanding that KLK withdraw from Collingwood Bay, Papua New Guinea © PNGexposed

Protest outside the Kuala Lumpur Kepong (KLK) head office in Ipoh demanding that KLK withdraw from Collingwood Bay, Papua New Guinea © PNGexposed


  • Companies found to not comply with local, national and international rules and regulations on human rights issues risk being shut down or forced to pay large fines.
  • Local opposition may lead to roadblocks, riots, sabotage and violent conflicts which can lead to delays in operations.
Cases of company-community conflict

Cases of company-community conflict


  • There is a reputational risk associated with socially harmful operations.
  • The exposure of consumer-facing brands in particular as being linked to child labour or unfair working conditions is extremely damaging to a company’s reputation.
  • Recently, Kuala Lumpur Kepong Berhad (KLK) has been exposed of using slaves and child labour on their plantations in Indonesia. There are now calls for the customers and financiers (including Unilever, Procter & Gamble, Nestle, Kellog, Kraft and HSBC among others) to cut ties with the company.
  • In another example, The Body Shop dropped its palm oil supplier in 2010 over allegations of the company illegally evicting local communities in Colombia.
  • This reputational risk can equally be regarded as an opportunity, with companies taking the lead in sustainability benefiting from a positive image.


  • Responding to sustainability challenges presents growers with significant market opportunities. Supply chain stakeholders are increasingly working to reduce their own regulatory and reputational risks by committing to address their potential social and environmental impacts. Growers can ensure continued market access by meeting the sustainable sourcing policies of their buyers.

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What are organisations doing to combat human rights abuses?

The Rainforest Action Network has worked with a group of unions, workers organizations, NGOs, investors and human rights organizations from the U.S, Europe, Malaysia, and Indonesia to develop Free and Fair Labour in Palm Oil Production: Principles and Implementation Guidance, with a set of recommendations to help guide companies, plantation certification bodies and government regulators towards eliminating the abuses of human rights issues regularly reported. The principles and guidelines were based on the International Labour Organization’s core conventions and the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. The next challenge will be implementing these standards into normal business practices in the global palm oil industry.

World Resources Institute (WRI) has recently launched LandMark, an online, interactive global platform mapping land held by indigenous communities. These maps will help define the boundaries of indigenous communities land, helping them to gain legal recognition from governments. Research has shown that Indigenous peoples have customary rights of up to 65% of the global land area, however they have ownership rights of just 10%.

Sawit Watch, an advocacy group based in Jakarta, Indonesia, aims to encourage social changes for smallholder farmers, labourers and indigenous peoples. They do a lot of research into the activities of palm oil companies, facilitating community’s dialogues with government, parliament and the private sector for the resolution of conflicts and for policy changes related to oil palm plantations.

Borneo Child Aid Society is an organisation focused on educating under privileged children, such as those of migrant workers employed in the palm oil industry. They operate more than 100 Learning Centres in cooperation with major plantation companies providing free daily education for over 8000 children in remote areas of Sabah, Malaysia. Wilmar is one of those palm oil companies working with the Borneo Child Aid Society.

The opening of newly built Learning Centre, 2009. Torben Venning with Pak Martua Sitorus COO of Wilmar and Mr. Khoo Hong Lian, Head of plantations. © Borneo child Aid

The opening of newly built Learning Centre, 2009. Torben Venning with Pak Martua Sitorus COO of Wilmar and Mr. Khoo Hong Lian, Head of plantations. © Borneo child Aid

Verite is a non-profit organisation that looks at labour rights violations in supply chains for multinationals, including the palm oil industry. They participate in the RSPO’s Principles and Criteria Review Taskforce, helping to facilitate stronger labour, employment, human rights and business ethics provisions. Verité also serves on the RSPO’s Dispute Settlement Facility Advisory Group.

The International Labor Rights Forum is a human rights organization that works globally to hold corporations accountable for labour rights violations in their supply chains and advance policies and laws that protect workers.

For more examples of organisations working to improve social conditions within the palm oil sector see the links below:

For reports and articles about unjust labour practices in the palm oil sector visit the resources section.

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What can governments do to combat human rights abuses?

Improve rights for indigenous communities


In Indonesia, 30% of its territories have been handed over to private companies as concessions, many overlapping with indigenous lands. Until 2012, Indonesia did not formally recognize the existence of its indigenous communities, but it is now working towards setting up a task force to aid these communities. Although currently on hold, this task force is an important step towards establishing the Indigenous People’s Rights Acknowledgment and Protection Bill (PPMHA). This bill would formally define indigenous communities and set up procedures to deal with customary land disputes.
In 2013 Constitutional Court ruling recognized indigenous peoples’ lands as no longer being a part of state forests, under which The Ministry of Environment and Forestry announced its plan to redistribute 12.7 million hectares of concessions and state forests as village, community and partnership forests in the next four years.

A lack of geospatial information is another barrier towards establishing community land rights. Indonesia’s One Map Initiative established in 2014 aims to resolve land disputes that occur from overlapping permits for plantations, caused by the use of different data and maps. However, only around 4.8 million hectares of indigenous lands are currently included, representing only a small portion of Indonesia’s customary lands.


In the Malaysian state of Borneo, ‘native peoples’ are in the majority and therefore have stronger legal rights, as the government wants to ensure their cooperation and continuation of their customs. Native authorities and courts are thus officially recognised in Sabah and Sarawak.

However, as in Indonesia, one of the main problems is the lack of defined areas that belong to the native peoples. Although the Government admits that some 1.5 to 2.8 million hectares of land are subject to native customary rights, it has not revealed where it thinks such lands are located, meaning that most communities are unsure whether, or what part of, their lands are recognised.

When others make claim to state lands, such as oil palm companies, those with customary rights must make their claims known, however they often never have a chance to as they are not made aware of the others claims until it is too late.

Better demarcation of land and communication between governments, companies and communities would help to solve these problems.

Government Actions That Can Protect or Undermine Community Forest Rights ©WRI

Government Actions That Can Protect or Undermine Community Forest Rights ©WRI

Combat child labour

Due to financial difficulties experienced by many families in Indonesia and Malaysia, child labour is common. To combat child labour, the Malaysian and Indonesian Government recently passed the Manpower Act, which claims that by 2020 child labour for those aged 7-15 will be eradicated. This aims to be achieved through increased educational opportunities.

However, enforcement of child labour laws can be challenging to implement due to a lack of labour inspectors and sufficient resources to carry out effective inspections. The Government also lacks important data on child labour and trafficking investigations, violations, and convictions.

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What laws exist to protect against human rights abuses?

A variety of international laws and conventions applicable to the production of palm oil exist. These are summarised in the table below:

Principles International Standards
Ethical business conduct United Nations Convention Against Corruption (2000)
Respect for human rights United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (2011)
International Bill of Human Rights
• Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948)
• International Covenant on Civil and Political
• International Covenant on Economic, Social
and Cultural Rights
Just Land Acquisition ILO Convention 169 (1989) on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples
UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007)
Fair Representation and Participation of Indigenous and Tribal Peoples UN Convention on Biological Diversity (1992)
ILO Convention 169 (1989) on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples
UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007)
Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Inter American Human Rights System.
No Forced Labour ILO Convention 29 (1930) Forced Labour
ILO Convention 105 (1957) Abolition of Forced Labour
Protection of Children ILO Convention 138 (1973) Minimum Age
ILO Convention 182 (1999) Worst Forms of Child Labour
UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007)
Freedom of Association and Collective Bargaining ILO Convention 87 (1948) Freedom of Association and Protection of Right to Organise
ILO Convention 98 (1949) Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining
ILO Convention 141 (1975) Rural Workers’ Organisations
UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007)
Non- Discrimination and Equal Remuneration ILO Convention 100 (1951) Equal Remuneration
ILO Convention 111 (1958) Discrimination (Employment and Occupation)
UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007)
Just employment of Migrants ILO Convention 97 (1949) Migration for Employment
ILO Convention 143 (1975) Migrant Workers (Supplementary Provisions)
Protection of Plantation Workers ILO Convention 110 (1958) Plantations
Protection of Tenants and Sharecroppers ILO Recommendation 132 (1968) Tenants and Sharecroppers
Protection of Smallholders ILO Convention 117 (1962) Social Policy (Basic Aims and Standards)
Health and Safety ILO Convention 184 (2001) Safety and Health in Agriculture
Control or Eliminate Use of Dangerous Chemicals and Pesticides Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (2001)
FAO International Code of Conduct on the Distribution and Use of Pesticides (1985, Revised 2002)
Rotterdam Conventions on Prior and Informed Consent Procedure for Certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides in International Trade (1998)
UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007)


More information about human rights laws within Malaysia can be found here.

More information about human rights laws within Indonesia can be found here.

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What are the links between social and environmental issues?

Globally, the 513 million hectares of government-recognized community forests hold an estimated 37.7 billion tonnes of carbon stock – about equal to the carbon in all the forests of North America.

A study done by WRI highlights the link between community owned forests and reduced deforestation. It is shown that weak community rights are linked to higher levels of deforestation, and that Indigenous peoples and local communities with legal forest rights can even improve their forests’ carbon storage.

Other environmental impacts such as the destruction of ecosystem services impacts communities in terms of their livelihoods and health.

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Economic Impacts of Palm Oil Production

What are the economic criteria for a sustainable plantation?

The economic criteria for a sustainable plantation aim to optimise productivity of a plantation, maximising its yield and ensuring its long term survival.

The RSPO’s Principles and Criteria are based on the following:

  • Commitment to transparency
  • Compliance with applicable laws and regulations
  • Commitment to long term economic and financial viability
  • Use of appropriate best practices by growers and millers
  • Environmental responsibility and conservation of natural resources and biodiversity
  • Responsible consideration of employees, and of individuals and communities affected by growers and mills
  • Responsible development of new plantings
  • Commitment to continuous improvement in key areas of activity

These criteria cover environmental, social and economic issues.


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What are the economic impacts of sustainable palm oil?

The RSPO and other sustainable palm oil standards aim to stop deforestation of primary forest for palm oil production. This will increase the need for producing countries to utilise other forms of land, including degraded land. However, the success of palm oil production on degraded land depends largely on the quality of that land, and there is currently little data available for identifying areas suitable for palm oil production.

Restrictions on the conversion of forest area will reduce the availability of fertile land, holding back expansion of the industry. This could negatively impact economic growth in producing countries such as Indonesia, directly impacting those living in poverty.

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Are products containing sustainable palm oil more expensive?

It is a common misconception that ‘sustainable’ automatically implies ‘more expensive’. Whilst some products containing sustainable palm oil may be slightly more expensive, increasing demand from consumers will work to drive down prices.

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Health Impacts of Palm Oil Production

Is eating palm oil bad for my health?

There is a lot of conflicting information available on the health properties of palm oil but it is important to distinguish between palm oil and palm kernel oil. Palm oil and palm kernel oil have very different health properties. Palm oil comes from the palm fruit, while palm kernel oil is extracted from the palm kernel (seed).

Palm kernel oil contains over 80% saturated fat, compared to palm oil which contains only 50%. Saturated fats are believed to raise cholesterol levels in the blood increasing the risk of heart disease.

Unrefined palm oil (often called red palm oil) contains 50% saturated, 40% monounsaturated and 10% polyunsaturated fats, as well as a variety of nutrients including carotenoids, sterols, vitamin A, vitamin E and antioxidants such as carotenoids, working to reduce cholesterol among other health benefits. Palm kernel oil contains around 80% saturated and 20% monounsaturated fats, and only a small amount of polyunsaturated fats.

When palm oil goes through the manufacturing process it becomes oxidised, reducing some of its health benefits. However, it is still healthier than other hydrogenated vegetable oils which are high in trans-fats and often found in manufactured food products, trans-fats are much more damaging to your health than saturated fats.

Whilst palm oil is considered one of the healthier vegetable oils it should still be consumed in moderation.

BBC radio 4 image

Listen to BBC Radio 4’s broadcast ‘Why is palm oil in everything?’ discussing the health impacts of palm oil.

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What is the seasonal haze that appears over some Southeast Asian countries?

Over 127,000 fires were detected by Global Forest Watch Fires across Indonesia in 2015, the worst recorded since 1997. Many of these fires were the result of clearing forested peatlands to make way for plantations of commodities such as palm oil through methods such as slash and burn. This method involves purposefully starting fires to clear land, but the fires often get out of control and were encouraged further by the dry conditions that Indonesia was experiencing in 2015 due to the El Nino climate phenomenon. Peatlands store some of the highest quantities of carbon on Earth and also emit methane when burnt resulting in up to 200 times more damage to the global climate than regular fires of similar extent.

As a result of these fires, toxic smog spread across a wide area including Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, reaching as far as Thailand and the Philippines. The smog was so toxic it forced schools to close and shut down airports, forcing six Indonesian provinces to declare a state of emergency. Haze from these fires caused more than 500,000 cases of haze-related respiratory illnesses in Southeast Asia and resulted in the deaths of at least 19 Indonesians. The haze will also have long lasting impacts. with many more people expected to die from breathing the toxic air.

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