Actions speak louder than words: The conflicting intentions of many RSPO members
Over the past 13 years, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (hereinafter, RSPO) has grown to more than 3,100 members around the globe, representing stakeholders in seven sectors of the palm oil industry, including oil palm producers, processors and traders, consumer goods manufacturers, retailers, banks and other investors, and NGOs. The RSPO brand, including its trademarked logo, have grown to have considerable value for businesses as more and more consumers seek out Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO).
However, there still remains a portion of the world population, especially in western society, that have decided to boycott palm oil in general, either due to often inaccurate environmental concerns or health concerns, or because of personal choice. In parallel, many companies that are in the palm oil supply chain, or have subsidiaries in the palm oil supply chain, are pursuing similar anti-palm oil agendas. In fact, a number of RSPO members are actively advocating against palm oil consumption in their marketing and promotional materials, as well as on product packaging.
Where this is occurring, the RSPO, either through policing by its members or ‘ex officio’, must sanction those RSPO members that are not fully committed to the objectives of the RSPO. RSPO members may pledge to support sustainable palm oil, but in the end, actions speak louder than words.
RSPO Code of Conduct
RSPO members must abide by the organization’s Code of Conduct. Different RSPO membership types hold slightly different conduct obligations. However, for “Ordinary and Affiliate membership” and “Supply Chain Associates membership”, the provisions and procedures pertaining to the denigration of palm oil are identical.
Article 2.1 of the RSPO Code of Conduct for Ordinary and Affiliate membership, and the same Article of the RSPO Code of Conduct of Supply Chain Associates membership, state that members:
“will not make any misleading or unsubstantiated claims about the production, procurement or use of sustainable palm oil”.
Article 2.3 and Article 2.2 of each portion of the code, respectively, go on to state that members:
“will commit to open and transparent engagement with interested parties, and actively seek resolution of conflict”.
With respect to the Ordinary and Affiliate members, Article 2.2 of said Code of Conduct adds an obligation that members “are required to report annually on progress against this Code”.
Nonetheless, numerous RSPO members appear to ignore their obligations to the organization and to the others members by either actively engaging in negative marketing against palm oil, or by failing to police their subsidiaries from denigrating attacks against the industry.
Review of RSPO members’ transgressions
There are shocking numbers of RSPO members that are using ‘No Palm Oil’ labels on their products, or using this type of language on their websites. In many cases, while the relevant products previously contained palm oil, the manufacturers have increasingly modified the recipes and then marketed the products contrary to the interests of the RSPO. Perhaps in attempts to appeal to larger numbers of consumers, some websites both praise and detail the use of sustainable palm oil, while elsewhere denigrating the use of palm oil – including via comparisons with other vegetable oils and fats – on their websites, in brochures or in advertisements.
The potential violations of the RSPO Code of Conduct by the most prominent of said RSPO Members are reviewed below:
- Nomad – Findus “Croustibat” products: Nomad Foods Europe Limited is an RSPO member that sells a frozen breaded fish product (e., Croustibat) under its Findus brand. The product packaging of Croustibat fish sticks includes a ‘No Palm Oil’ label, and the website for Croustibat explains that palm oil was removed due to health concerns for consumers.
- Nutrition et Santé – “Céréalpes” product and “Soy” brand products: Nutrition et Santé is an RSPO member that sells Céréalpes crackers and general Soy brand products that both include ‘No Palm Oil’ labels on the product packaging. The product packaging of the Céréalpes crackers renounces palm oil due to environmental concerns, while the Soy brand products include language implying that palm oil is not used due to an effort to source local ingredients.
- Wessanen – “Bjorg” brand: Wessanen, an RSPO member, owns the brand name Bjorg, which uses a ‘No Palm Oil’ label on a number of its products, including chocolate filled crackers. On the brand’s website, the company explains that no palm oil is used in the products because of health concerns for consumers.
- La Boulangère: La Boulangère is an RSPO member that sells ready-made products, such as wraps, whose product packaging includes ‘No Palm Oil’ labelling. The website for La Boulangère products states that palm oil is not used due to health concerns of the ingredient.
These examples demonstrate egregious violations of the RSPO Code of Conduct, due to the clear denouncement of palm oil as either unhealthy or environmentally unfriendly. The claims do not even single out unsustainable palm oil – they apply to palm oil in general, even sustainable palm oil, and harm the reputation and business operations of other RSPO members. This level of malicious behaviour requires a satisfactory response.
Options for RSPO members to halt the use of denigrating labelling and campaigns by other members
Fortunately, the RSPO has established a Complaints System, including a Complaints Panel. The RSPO Complaints System is intended to: 1) provide a framework for the RSPO to address complaints against any RSPO member or the RSPO system itself; 2) ensure that any alleged breaches of specific RSPO Statutes, by-laws, motions approved by the General Assembly, or any other approved articles, including the Principles & Criteria for Sustainable Palm Oil Production, the Certification System and the RSPO Code of Conduct are fairly, impartially and transparently resolved; and 3) protect the RSPO’s integrity.
According to Article 5.1 of the RSPO Code of Conduct, grievances should be resolved in a timely manner and should not include unsubstantiated allegations against other RSPO members. Article 5.2 states that breaches of the Code of Statutes may lead to exclusion from the RSPO. Article 5.3 calls on RSPO members to first report alleged breaches to the RSPO Secretariat, which, as explained in Article 5.4, may conduct an inquiry against the RSPO member that has allegedly breached its obligations.
A Complaints Panel is tasked with reviewing and assessing complaints, and formulating practical actions that can be carried out to mitigate the conflict. In cases where RSPO members have committed or omitted to act in a way that is “serious grounds for termination”, said member is required to take action in satisfaction of the RSPO Board of Governors.
However, there are other options that RSPO members may explore. In lieu of formal procedures under the RSPO Complaints System, a member may first attempt to mediate the dispute under the RSPO Dispute Settlement Facility (although, this forum is traditionally used for land-related disputes). If an RSPO member feels the need to elevate the nature of the dispute, there are also domestic court systems where complaints could be brought, relating to misleading advertising or marketing claims, misleading nutrition claims, or even libel.
Lastly, RSPO members may join together to attempt to influence the ‘court of public opinion’, publishing material that shame other RSPO members for failing to uphold the Code of Conduct’s obligations. Where RSPO members pledge to uphold the interests and integrity of the RSPO, and yet elsewhere denigrate the palm oil industry, other RSPO members or the organization itself should shed light on this hypocrisy. Perhaps intentionally – perhaps unintentionally – some companies are attempting to reach all market segments by falsely promoting their concerns under health and environmental justifications. Not only is this position misleading to consumers, it completely ignores the expansive efforts to make the palm oil chain sustainable, and to support the industry, in both developed (importing) countries and in the developing countries where palm oil is cultivated, and where communities rely economically on the palm oil industry to make a living and often to escape poverty.
A call to arms
There are over 3,100 RSPO members and many are responsible operators that follow the rules and the objectives of the RSPO. However, many others appear to be playing a dirty game, denigrating all palm oil through highly damaging labelling or marketing campaigns. The four examples provided above are indicative of this phenomenon, but unfortunately many more ‘offenders’ exist within the RSPO membership. As the RSPO continues to grow in recognition and reputation, its members must protect the trust and perceived value of the trademarked RSPO logo. All members must follow the RSPO Code of Conduct, both in the letter and spirit. The RSPO and/or its individual members must do a better job at ‘policing’ each other, so as to ensure that their collective interests are not harmed. In the end, in fact, actions speak louder than words and the current degree of hypocrisy will seriously undermine the long-term credibility and authority of the RSPO.
Contributed by: Fratini Vergano