What's in a Name? Why the RSPO’s Definition of “Sustainable” Falls Short

September 19, 2013 | 10:36 am
Calen May-Tobin
Former contributor

Words are living things. Their definitions and meanings change as society changes, as evidenced by the Oxford English dictionary bestowing official word status to “selfie”, “unlike”, and “FOMO” (fear of missing out) in its latest update. Likewise, as society progresses, the definition of some words change entirely. Back in the day, for instance, an “awful” stage play would have filled you with a sense of awe and wonder, while today an “awful” movie is just plain terrible. Unfortunately, after a vote earlier this year by the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), the word “sustainable” might need to be added to the list of words that have lost their meanings.


This guy was about as impressed with the new RSPO P&C as he was by Indiana Jones 4.

A rose by any other name would still destroy forest…

Back in November of 2012, I wrote that the RSPO was in the process of revising their principles and criteria (P&C), the standards that every RSPO member must meet. UCS was particularly concerned about the lack of protection for biodiverse secondary forests and carbon rich peatlands. Along with other groups, we submitted comments highlighting where the P&C fall short. In addition to our comments, more than 200 tropical scientists sent a letter to the RSPO urging them to heed the science and add the needed forest protections (PDF).

Unfortunately, the RSPO didn’t listen. The new standards, which were made public in late March and officially approved in late April, leave vast areas of secondary forest and peat swamps at risk of destruction. How can something that causes deforestation and massive amounts of carbon emissions be called sustainable? Unless we decide to change the definition of “sustainable”, it really can’t. UCS and a number of other NGOs, including World Wildlife Fund, a founding member and longtime advocate for the RSPO (PDF), recognize that the RSPO P&C are not strong enough and that to end forest and peatland destruction from palm oil expansion we must move beyond the RSPO’s minimum requirements.

Borneo peatland clearing

The new RSPO standards still leave peatlands vulnerable, like these which were clear for palm oil plantations in Borneo.

 …so RSPO would, were it not “sustainable” call’d

To ensure deforestation-free palm oil, we need to go straight to the source and tell RSPO member companies directly that we want them to do better. This is exactly what UCS has been doing in the months since the RSPO passed their new P&C. In June, we asked our supporters to voice their discontent with the RSPOMore than 17,000 sent letters letting the RSPO know that member companies would be feeling a lot more public pressure to move beyond their weak standards. UCS received a kindly written letter from the RSPO explaining the process of P&C review and inviting us to an “open dialogue” on the issues of deforestation. While we welcome open dialogue and will continue to work with the RSPO to strengthen their policies, we will be spending much more of our time and energy in the coming months dealing directly with the businesses that buy, trade, and produce palm oil.

Actions speak louder than words

Businesses don’t respond to the demands of NGOs alone; they need to hear from the millions of consumers who use their products every day. If you don’t want to unlike the word “sustainable” you can reach out directly to companies like Coca-Cola, Wal-Mart, Procter & Gamble, and Kraft Foods to let them know that you expect them to source deforestation-free palm oil and that hiding behind the RSPO isn’t going to cut it anymore.

Finally (shameless plug alert), you can sign-up for UCS’s mailing list. We’ve got a lot of really cool stuff coming done the pike including lots of great opportunities for you to make a difference.  Getting on our list is the best way to stay up-to-date. I’m not ready to give up on the word “sustainable” quite yet and together we can make sure it keeps its meaning long after “fauxhawks” or “jorts” have run their course.