Greasy Palms: Why not sustainable palm oil?

Greasy Palms: Why not sustainable palm oil?

Greasy Palms: The Impacts of Indonesia’s Palm Oil Plantations

This documentary concerns the social, environmental, and economic impacts of palm oil production in Indonesia, including the loss of over 2.8 million hectares of primary rainforest each year. That’s six football fields every minute!

A common ingredient in thousands of products, from anti-freeze to shampoo to potato chips, palm oil comprises an integral part of Indonesia’s economy. However, its impacts on local communities are little known, and include conflicts over human rights, land rights, and environmental protection.

Informed by the work of local non-profit organizations, this film has been created to educate consumers around the world, to help them realize the effects of palm oil consumption, as well as how we can all be part of a more sustainable solution.


Sustainable palm oil is an approach to oil palm agriculture that aims to produce palm oil without causing deforestation or harming people.

Sustainable palm oil has been under fire for several years from environmentalists and organisations who feel it is nothing more than a greenwashing scheme. This view did not improve within the environmental community upon the formation of the RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) in 2004, but many feel that this widely accepted certification scheme has the potential to prevent deforestation in the industry.

The RSPO is a not-for-profit organisation that aims to unite stakeholders form all sectors of the palm oil industry, including environmental and social NGOs. RSPO is currently the largest sustainability-focused organisation within the palm oil sector, however its standards do not ban deforestation or destruction of peatlands for the development of oil palm plantations.

Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO)

CSPO represents the certification process where palm oil growers must commit to real credible sustainability standards through time-bound plans. There is an increasing demand for palm oil that is sustainably certified in Europe and North America, including big names such as Walmart, Unilever and Nestle. As of 2011, CSPO represented over 10% of the global palm oil market but this has increased in recent years and is projected to increase in coming years. The certification process consists of reviewing existing production operations and identifying areas that must be improved to reach the CSPO standards to then be approved by a certification body. The standards are based on eight principles which have been retrieved from the RSPO website:

1. Commitment to transparency 

2. Compliance with applicable laws and regulations 

3. Commitment to long-term economic and financial viability 

4. Use of appropriate best practices by growers and millers 

5. Environmental responsibility and conservation of natural resources and biodiversity 

6. Responsible consideration of employees and of individuals and communities affected by growers and mills 

7. Responsible development of new plantings 

8. Commitment to continuous improvement in key areas of activity Because of the varying levels of sustainability and commitment by stakeholders, multiple selling systems have been created to define where certified palm oil fits in one of three systems.

Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO)

The RSPO is a multi-stakeholder organization that was founded in 2004 as a response to pressure from the negative attention the industry was getting for its environmental and social impacts. It was created by producers, civil society, governments and buyers to address these impacts and carries forth the vision to “transform markets to make sustainable palm oil the norm.” It consists of comprehensive production standard and certification system to prevent the aforementioned negative impacts and “credibly present that information to end users.” It comprises 558 members with one-third of these members representing consumer goods manufacturers but only 17% of them representing producers of the oil.

The Good: The RSPO is currently the best sustainability and social impact standard that exists around the palm oil industry. Additionally, it has been found to be very beneficial in the long run for stakeholders who have implemented the RSPO certification standard. Finally, because the RSPO is multi-stakeholder, it includes everyone involved in the chain of production from growers and producers through to retailers and buyers and then on to members of civil society and NGOs at the very end of the line. 

The Bad: One of the main criticisms of the RSPO standard is that it still permits planting of palm oil on peatlands and cleared secondary forests. This is of great concern to environmental groups and NGOs because of the role peatlands play in storing the world’s carbon which is an ecosystem good that is completely lost following the destruction of these peatlands. Additionally, its general certification standard is often regarded as being weak and a result of the multi-stakeholder dynamic of the organization. Many varying views and opinions must be considered in moving forward with any decisions made by the RSPO, which has meant very little change in the last 10 years. This dynamic drastically slows down the pace of potential progress because the RSPO runs by consensus meaning the bar for change has to be set quite low to be accepted by all. While this progress continues on slowly as the rainforests of the world are cut down at increasing speeds, it is vital for this process to be based around multi-stakeholder consensus decision to allow all sides to move forward with a shared vision.


As a consumer, you can help to reduce your contribution to deforestation in Borneo and Sumatra through making some simple lifestyle changes. We share these tips and tricks with you in a world-first program called the 28-Day Palm Oil Challenge.

The 28-Day Palm Oil Challenge is a program designed to help you live a more holistically sustainable lifestyle. Step by step, you’ll discover how to reduce your consumption of conflict-palm oil. It includes:

– Our recommended deforestation-free brands
– DIY food/product recipes
– Additional resources

The 28-Day Palm Oil Challenge, undertaken by over 1,500 caring consumers so far, is split into 4 key areas of the home – Fridge, Pantry, Bathroom and Laundry – offering free advice, trips and product information that enable you to live more ethically through your consumption choices.

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