By now you know the problem: a rapidly expanding palm oil industry, eating up forests, draining carbon-rich peatlands, and sparking conflict with local people and workers.

But if you had to guess at what is turning out to be a key solution, what would you say? Government regulation? We’ve been pushing for that, and we’ll keep at it, but in places like Indonesia there’s little political appetite to revoke vast concessions covering the country’s remaining forests and peatlands.

Action at P & G Palm Oil Supplier in Kalimantan © Ulet Ifansasti / Greenpeace

Well then, you might say, perhaps it’s the industry’s own initiative, the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).

Sounds promising, but sadly, after spending the past week in Kuala Lumpur at the RSPO’s 12th annual meeting, along with the world’s biggest palm oil companies and their customers, it is clear that the RSPO is hostage to its own consensus approach. Industry laggards have been able to delay and stymie progress, and while the RSPO has agreed to kick out companies that violate its rules, it’s not clear how the group will deliver the changes needed to address deforestation and climate change.

Procter & Gamble Protest in Philippines. © Jimmy Domingo/Greenpeace

Yet this year the palm oil industry has been changing, and changing fast. This has come in the form of individual company policy commitments. They’ve been hard won, through the work of groups such as Greenpeace, whose supporters have pressured consumer companies around the world, and whose technical experts have sat down with producers and their implementing partners such as TFT to thrash out details of forest conservation and social policies.

We believe these individual policies are the right approach, as they embody lots of innovation, look into issues in detail and apply to companies’ entire operations, including third party suppliers. They set a benchmark that we expect the RSPO to adopt if it wants to be relevant in transforming the industry. 

The speed and scale of such commitments made by all kinds of industry players is unprecedented. In less than a year, Wilmar, Cargill, Bunge, P&G, L’Oreal, Mars, Unilever, Colgate, J&J, AAK, Kellogg, Mondelez, General Mills and others have followed Golden Agri Resources (GAR) and announced policies to address the destruction of forests and peatlands and eliminate the historical social abuses that plague the commodity.

Four of the biggest traders - Asian Agri, Wilmar, Cargill and GAR - joined a pledge during the recent UN Climate Summit in New York to protect forests and carbon-rich peatlands and push the Indonesian government for policy change. Earlier this month IOI Loders Croklaan followed, announcing a new policy for all the palm oil it buys and sells, although unfortunately Croklaan's parent company IOI Group has not extended the commitment to cover oil palm plantations under its control.

High Carbon Stock

The High Carbon Stock Approach has become a key tool for many producers with No Deforestation policies to put their commitments into practice. A multi-stakeholder steering group of NGOs, producers and experts was formed to oversee this innovative approach, and to ensure it is a robust tool to protect forests while respecting the rights of local communities.  Wilmar, Cargill, Agropalma, New Britain Palm Oil and GAR are part of this initiative, as well as pulp and paper company APP.

Grant Rosoman (far left) Greenpeace Forest Solutions Project Coordinator, speaking at a panel on High Carbon Stock, moderated by the David Suzuki. © Laurel Sutherlin/RAN

Palm Oil Innovation Group

How will we know if these companies are doing what they promised? This is where the Palm Oil Innovation Group (POIG) comes in. This group of producers and NGOs, including Greenpeace, have developed the sector’s most progressive requirements and indicators, to be used to independently verify that green commitments don’t turn into greenwash.

Indonesia’s biggest producer of palm oil, GAR, has just applied to become a member of POIG.  Three years ago, after a long campaign by Greenpeace, GAR was the first plantation company to commit to stop clearing forests. But big plantation companies don’t turn into angels overnight, and GAR has struggled to put those commitments in to practice over its hundreds of thousands of hectares in Indonesia and Africa. Now the company wants to take the next step and get its operations verified against the highest standard in the industry.

So, as you can see, we have seen a number of promising commitments from big players in the palm oil industry, even before the year is out. Sure, a lot of work needs to be done to bring them to fruition, but the ambition of the new policies is undeniable.

Suzanne Kroger is the Global Palm Oil Coordinator at Greenpeace International.