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The world's trusted guide to sustainable and ethical fashion

Does “Certified Sustainable Palm Oil” Even Mean Anything?

This was first published on Selva Beat, an online, environmental magazine with a strong focus on the palm-oil industry and conflict-free living whose main goal is to end the use of unregulated and untraceable palm-oil, as it is directly linked to animal extinction, human rights violations, and disastrous environmental ramifications. They provide you with conflict-free products, recipes, and challenges Monday through Friday.

Okay, so there seems to be some confusion out there about what “certified sustainable palm-oil” actually means and we’re here to set the record straight.

You see, the CSPO (or Certified Sustainable Palm-Oil) umbrella is too big. I said it. Come at me. It’s too big and for lack of a better analogy, it is keeping businesses and egregious environmental practices completely dry, while leaving endangered animals and fragile ecosystems out in the rain. The phrase is imperfect and showing its weakness at the customer-level. Semantics are important when they affect consumership, which in turn drives demand, and eventually endangers wildlife via ingredient sourcing.

So, let’s talk facts. Certified sustainable palm-oil means one of four things, as defined by the RSPO:

IDENTITY PRESERVED: This is the most desirable form of RSPO certified palm-oil. It is, as the name suggests, guaranteed to be from one, singular identifiable source, kept away from unsustainable conflict palm-oil throughout the supply chain. The chupacabra of palm-oil, we have not encountered it yet through our research but welcome finding it someday.

SEGREGATED: Very similar to the definition above but with one important distinction – this is sustainable palm-oil from multiple certified mills and supply bases. It is still fully traceable, though some argue that the inclusion of more than one mill means that deception can likely occur, unpoliced. We can accept this, as long as it is not from Malaysia or Indonesia, which ground sources convince us is too fragile an ecosystem at this point.

MASS BALANCE: Often to cut the cost of changing company-wide sourcing, this form of CSPO means traceable palm-oil is mixed with “ordinary” conflict palm-oil. This is the most common form ofwhole palm-oil we find. To us, this is where the truth begins to bend. We don’t accept it as ’sustainable’ palm-oil and don’t want to participate in what this sourcing potentially means for wildlife and the environment.

BOOK & CLAIM: Also called GreenPalm Certificates. It is the cheapest option for companies making the switch to traceable palm-oil and the distinction that we encounter the most. Basically, companies or manufacturers purchase certificates that in turn support the production of traceable palm-oil. A large percentage of palm-oil derivatives, because they do not exist as Segregated or Identity Preserved yet, are often GreenPalm.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I understand why this tiered system exists. It’s crafted to allow companies whowant to be environmentally friendly be a part of positive change, despite their current practices. If you tell a billion dollar enterprise to make a costly change and give them an ultimatum, they will tell you to take a hike. Tell them they have years, four options, and a certificate that makes them look ecofriendly and progressive and they might just participate.

The CSPO Umbrella Is Just Too Big | Selva Beat ☼

My main issue with CSPO – other than how long companies tend to sit at the last two rungs of the above system – is that the term can be twisted very easily. Businesses use it freely and flippantly to prove to customers that they are environmentally friendly. After hundreds of e-mails about this very subject, I can confirm that this has been offered to me many times, with no explanation, as an answer to my questions about environmental impact. On the other hand, I’ve also encountered many consumers who say something along the lines of “but that company uses sustainable palm-oil.” To which, I have to respond, That company actually uses nothing but conflict palm-oil. The “sustainable” part of the title they’re using denotes the purchase of GreenPalm certificates, which funds sustainable practices.

A typical scenario: I ask a company about their impact and whether or not their palm-oil is sustainable. They tell me they use CSPO, as certified by the RSPO. I ask if they mean Identity Preserved or Segregated, they say that they actually mean Mass Balance and GreenPalm certificates, to cover palm-oil derivative usages in the tens of thousands. In tons.

The only kind of solution I can suggest at this point is that the word traceable be used more often. You can throw the word sustainable at any tier of the system mentioned above and it will fit somehow, some way. But traceability? That can’t really be finnesed when it comes to Mass Balance or Book & Claim. This is why I have so many issues with the RSPO. To me, their methods can be abused so easily on a customer-level. These stock phrases enable companies to lie by omission and count on you being unknowledgeable about palm-oil and the processes surrounding it.

So, please, let’s retire the phrase CSPO once and for all. Or at least, narrow the practices that can fall under the ‘CSPO umbrella’. When you write your next e-mail asking about the sustainability of someone’s palm-oil, show your knowledge and use terms like ‘segregated‘ and ‘identity preserved.’ Ask if they can trace the source of their palm-oil from the mill to the refinery to you. Be inquisitive.

Otherwise, grab a raincoat and try not to complain about your feet being wet.

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