NGOs have pushed companies into an arranged marriage with the RSPO. Companies have set the wedding date through big announcements: RSPO certified by 2015! But are they really engaged?
Ten years ago, with global media awash with images of burning peatlands, smoldering orangutan habitat and indigenous peoples pushed off their land to make way for palm oil plantations, leading companies and NGOs joined together and made a promise to build a responsible, sustainable palm oil industry. They created the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) to jointly set out the terms for a partnership that would set the palm oil business on a path towards responsibility.
Some companies joined the RSPO immediately, understanding the business case for responsible palm oil: it offers supply chain security and protects their brands from risk, and their employees know it’s the right thing to do. Others were more hesitant. But faced with customer boycotts and NGO campaigns, today nearly all major brands and retailers have agreed to enter into an arranged marriage with the RSPO.
Don’t get us wrong – with palm oil-associated deforestation continuing apace, even an arranged marriage is better than no marriage. We want companies to marry the RSPO – in fact, we want them to go even farther and make deeper commitments that protect peatlands and high carbon stock forests, and make sure that smallholders can be part of the family. But we’re deeply concerned that even the weddings that have been promised in fancy engraved invitations sent to every newspaper from New York to Jakarta won’t actually take place. Already the grooms are hinting at the possibility of an open marriage, with proposals like ‘in 2015 we’ll buy RSPO-certified palm oil if it’s available’. And even if they intend to make a true commitment, namely that they’ll buy segregated, responsible oil, are these companies actually doing anything to make the wedding happen? We’re hearing the opposite.
TFT: The Wedding Planner
Planning a wedding to the RSPO takes a real commitment – a real engagement, and we’re concerned that companies don’t understand all of the work it takes to make the wedding happen. You can’t just announce the date and hope that the guests, decorations and caterer will show up. You have to actually put in lots of hours to make sure that when 2015 comes you are ready to walk down the aisle with the RSPO, with traceable, responsible oil burning a hole in that ringbox in your back pocket.
You’ll encounter lots of setbacks. The only florist who sells out of Palembang Port never returns your calls. You want to serve Cetyl palmitate as a passed appetizer before the ceremony, but none of your suppliers will tell you where it’s made, much less which farm it’s grown on and what the deforestation policy is like there. It’s easier to give up, to settle for an open marriage and keep buying GreenPalm certificates that don’t actually deliver much change on the ground. But it doesn’t have to be this way! At TFT we are working with companies who have made strong commitments to actually make sure they get to the altar. Call us wedding planners. What we’ve found is that to be successful, companies need to fully engage and transform their supplier relationships. They need to convince all of their family members – their sourcing offices, their brokers, their suppliers – that this marriage is for real and that by 2015 all of that traceable, responsible oil had better show up at the venue.
Our work with these committed companies is showing that it can be done. We regularly trace oil through eight countries, five intermediaries and ten processors and refineries, all the way back to source, to check practices on the ground. But we have only been able to do this because the companies that work with TFT are fully engaged. Their purchasing managers tell their suppliers that they want traceable, responsible oil. They call in their tough uncle the soybean buyer to explain to an uncooperative supplier that she’ll lose all future wedding business across all commodities if she doesn’t deliver on palm oil.
After twelve years of helping companies deliver on their sustainability promises, we understand the hard work that it takes to transform supply chains. And what we’re hearing on our supplier visits is that those brands and retailers aren’t doing that hard work – they aren’t really committed to their RSPO engagements. Suppliers tell us that ‘no one is asking’ for responsible oil, or that their customers don’t end up buying it because ‘it’s too expensive’. These brands are flirting with other girls! They’re hoping that if no one actually does any wedding planning, it will be OK to show up in 2015 and say ‘it wasn’t possible’. But take note: TFT is showing that it is possible to build fully traceable, responsible supply chains without driving up costs . . . and consumers, media, and NGO campaigners are watching. They see that some leading companies are out there doing the legwork to set the foundations for a strong marriage, and others are dragging their cold feet.
Time to get serious
We’re using levity about what is actually a grave problem in order to make our point: companies need to get serious about their commitments to responsible palm oil. They need to make sure their procurement teams are finding out where their palm oil comes from, and they need to make sure that their values are reflected in their suppliers’ practices on the ground. Suppliers that aren’t on a credible path to responsible production need to be taken off the supplier list. Otherwise in 2015 RSPO is going to be left stranded at the altar with nothing but a bouquet full of GreenPalm certificates, and future generations will never forgive us.