Palm oil is one of the most ubiquitous ingredients in our daily lives. It is used in soap, personal care products, food, and even biofuels. However, the palm oil industry has long been associated with deforestation, habitat destruction, and human rights abuses. In response to these concerns, the concept of sustainable palm oil emerged. 

So, what is sustainable palm oil and how can it make a positive difference in our world? Everything will be discussed in this article.

The Issue With Conventional Palm Oil

To understand the importance of sustainable palm oil, we need to acknowledge the negative impacts of conventional palm oil production. Palm oil is extremely versatile and efficient. It yields high quantities of oil over relatively small areas of land, nearly year-round. That’s why it has become an attractive choice for growers of all sizes, providing a steady source of income for many communities.

However, despite its economic benefits, the rapid expansion of conventional palm oil production has triggered a litany of environmental and social problems. Deforestation is one of the most alarming issues, especially in some of the most biodiverse forests in the world. These ecosystems are home to many endangered species such as orangutans, pygmy elephants, and Sumatran rhinos. As palm oil plantations encroach on their habitats, these animals face the brink of extinction.

Deforestation isn’t the only problem. When we turn peatlands, which store lots of carbon, into palm oil farms, it also releases millions of tons of greenhouse gases. Moreover, the palm oil industry has been criticized for mistreating workers and using child labor, raising important ethical concerns. These problems highlight the pressing need for changes in the industry.

However, even the most dedicated environmentalists agree that completely boycotting palm oil isn’t a practical solution. Palm oil has advantages like lower production costs and better resource efficiency compared to other vegetable oil crops. Additionally, it provides jobs for about 6 million people globally, including 2.2 million smallholder farmers. These farmers depend on palm oil for their families’ basic needs like food, housing, and education. 

So, how can palm oil be sustainable and beneficial at the same time? It requires a comprehensive approach that takes care of both the environment and the livelihoods of those who rely on palm oil.

What Is Sustainable Palm Oil?

In response to the environmental and ethical challenges posed by conventional production, sustainable palm oil has emerged as a promising alternative. But what is sustainable palm oil, exactly?

Understand The Nature Of Sustainable Palm Oil

Sustainable palm oil represents a conscientious and eco-friendly alternative to its conventional counterpart. At its core, it is produced with the utmost consideration for the environment, wildlife, and the people involved in the industry. It adheres to high standards of sustainability and ethical practices, aiming to minimize its environmental footprint and social impacts.

The core of sustainable palm oil is all about being responsible and ethical when making it. This involves setting up strict rules to protect nature, animals, and communities. Key principles of this approach include:

  • Saving Forests and Peatlands: To stop deforestation, the industry avoids destroying important forests and peatlands. This helps keep our biodiversity intact and fight climate change.
  • Treating Communities and Workers Right: Fair practices make sure local communities keep their homes, and palm oil workers get fair pay and safe workplaces.
  • Protecting Wildlife and Nature: Sustainable palm oil farms take steps to safeguard wildlife and the environment. They make safe zones for animals and use fewer harmful chemicals.

How Can Palm Oil Be Sustainable?

Can palm oil be sustainable? Absolutely, but it’s a team effort. Companies, governments, and consumers all need to work together to make it happen. Luckily, many big palm oil producers have already started moving in that direction in recent years.

Several companies, like Musim Mas, Golden Agri-Resources (GAR), Wilmar International, Cargill, and Asian Agri, have embraced a set of policies known as “No Deforestation, No Peat Development, and No Exploitation” (NDPE). These policies apply to all their supply chains, including third-party suppliers and smallholders.

These NDPE policies make farming more sustainable. Farmers can’t burn land anymore to clear it. Instead, they have to check for important areas with lots of carbon or conservation value before starting new farms. Plus, they have to get permission from local communities through a process called “Free, Prior and Informed Consent” (FPIC). This way, local communities are protected and not taken advantage of or forced to leave their homes.

Many of these requirements match what is widely seen as the industry’s most thorough framework: the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil’s (RSPO) certification system.

The Roundtable On Sustainable Palm Oil

The Roundtable On Sustainable Palm Oil

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was established in 2004 to boost sustainable palm oil practices. It unites various stakeholders in the palm oil industry, including plantation companies, processors, traders, consumer goods manufacturers, retailers, financiers, and civil society groups. Together, they collaborate to establish and uphold standards for sustainable palm oil known as the RSPO Principles and Criteria (P&C).

The RSPO P&C has eight principles and over 40 criteria that growers must follow to show they’re using sustainable practices. These criteria include things like protecting forests, reducing greenhouse gases, involving local communities, and respecting workers’ rights.

RSPO certification covers not just the growers but also the companies involved in the palm oil supply chain. This approach makes sure that sustainability standards are maintained all the way from the plantation to the final product. Auditors evaluate and certify the plantations that provide fresh fruit bunches (FFBs) to mills. From there, palm oil goes through several refining, processing, and transformation stages before it reaches food and consumer goods makers.

Depending on how palm oil is handled through the supply chain, manufacturers can claim to use one of four types of certified sustainable palm oil (CSPO):

  • Identity Preserved (IP): This CSPO comes from one specific plantation and stays separate during transportation and refining. The refinery must be RSPO-certified, allowing users to trace it back to a certified source.
  • Segregated (SG): FFBs from many certified plantations are mixed at the mill, but the CSPO stays separate during the supply chain. However, you can’t trace it to a single plantation.
  • Mass Balanced (MB): The mill processes FFBs from both certified and non-certified plantations together. The resulting oil isn’t directly linked to sustainable plantations, but the mill tracks the amount of sustainable palm oil it makes and sells.
  • Book & Claim (B&C): Manufacturers can buy “RSPO Credits” online instead of physical CSPO. These credits represent sustainability and support farmers using sustainable farming practices.

While these four types of certification vary in strictness, each certificate linked to a product contributes to pulling one tonne of CSPO into the supply chain.

Are RSPO Certified Products Trustworthy?

The RSPO has made progress in promoting sustainable palm oil practices, but some people think its current rules might not meet everyone’s expectations. Still, it’s important to remember that the RSPO’s strength comes from both the final outcome and how they create these standards.

The RSPO’s way of working brings everyone involved in sustainability standards together to have a say. This helps connect different parts of the palm oil supply chain and makes sure the standards work well in many situations.

Furthermore, RSPO-certified products offer a degree of assurance when it comes to sustainable palm oil sourcing. Products labeled as RSPO certified have undergone a rigorous assessment to ensure they meet the organization’s sustainability criteria. This can provide peace of mind to consumers who want to make ethical and environmentally responsible choices.

Why Should We Choose Sustainably Produced Palm Oil?

Is sustainable palm oil bad for you? No, it’s not. In fact, it carries significant benefits for the environment, society, and the industry itself. Here’s why:

It Helps to Protect the Environment

Choosing sustainably produced palm oil is a good idea because it helps the environment. Regular palm oil production causes problems like cutting down forests, which harms nature, animals, and people living nearby. Also, it leads to pollution in the air and water and makes the soil wash away.

Sustainable palm oil production, following RSPO standards, does things differently. It makes sure that it protects and takes care of forests with special values for nature (HCV) and those that store a lot of carbon (HCS). This means it safeguards the homes of many endangered plants and animals, like Sumatran tigers and South American macaws. By stopping deforestation, sustainable palm oil production helps save these plants and animals, which is good for our planet’s biodiversity.

Moreover, this sustainable approach is crucial for fighting climate change. Tropical forests store a lot of carbon, about six times more than oil palm plantations. When RSPO members safeguard forests and stop them from turning into palm oil plantations, they help store carbon and lower carbon emissions.

It Creates Sustainable Livelihoods

Sustainable palm oil production creates sustainable livelihoods

Growing oil palms and picking their fruits is a big money-maker for many small-scale farmers. These farmers rely on palm oil to make a living, and sustainable palm oil farming guarantees them a stable income throughout the year.

In places where palm oil is produced, it can make a big difference in reducing poverty and making life better for people in rural areas. If the industry follows sustainable methods, it can also solve problems like workers’ rights and land disputes, making sure everyone gets fair treatment and equal chances.

The RSPO certification system is acknowledged by NGOs as a way to make palm oil production better for people and the environment. It focuses on human rights, land rights, and getting permission before using land (FPIC) to ensure the most sustainable approach.

NGOs, companies, and policymakers can work together beyond RSPO to encourage better practices in the palm oil industry. This teamwork is crucial for making even more improvements in the industry.

It Drives Industry Transformation

Based on data from the European Palm Oil Alliance and the Initiative Sustainable Trade, 86% of the palm oil used in Europe is certified as sustainable by RSPO. Even though European Union member states only import 17% of the global RSPO-certified sustainable palm oil (CSPO) production, they have a major influence on demand. In fact, the EU market is the largest consumer of sustainable palm oil in the world.

National standards such as those in Indonesian and Malaysia can also play an important role in ensuring more sustainable production. Their development often follows RSPO developments. This is why it is important to continue to invest in and buy RSPO–certified products.

European demand remains a key driver of the palm oil industry transformation. Many European countries have established targets for making their palm oil imports 100% CSPO. Buying CSPO fits the ambitious targets of the European Green Deal and Farm to Fork policies. It creates incentives for farmers, producers, and even governments worldwide to transform their practices and standards so that palm oil is produced sustainably.

Where To Buy Sustainable Palm Oil?

As consumer awareness of the importance of sustainable palm oil has grown, many companies have made public commitments to sourcing palm oil responsibly. Here are a few examples of where to buy sustainable palm oil.

  • Unilever: Unilever, one of the world’s biggest palm oil buyers, has been purchasing all palm oil from certified sources since 2019.
  • Procter & Gamble (P&G): P&G has a supply chain free of deforestation since 2020. Although they didn’t specifically mention RSPO certification, it still shows they care about sustainability.
  • Colgate-Palmolive: This company has been purchasing 100% certified palm oil since late 2017, showing their commitment to sustainable sourcing.
  • Nutella: ​​Does Nutella use sustainable palm oil? The answer is no. Nutella has been buying all their palm oil from RSPO-certified sources since the RSPO started. They even reached this goal in January 2015, a year earlier than planned.

The RSPO does provide a user-friendly website and a mobile app buying guide. These resources list global supermarkets where you can find sustainable palm oil products, making it simpler for you to make informed choices while shopping.

Palm oil Buyers Scorecard

Furthermore, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) also provides a helpful tool known as the Palm Oil Buyers’ Scorecard. This scorecard, launched in 2009, evaluates 137 retailers, manufacturers, and food service companies using different factors. These factors include whether they are part of the RSPO, have publicly committed to purchasing CSPO, and how much they have embraced sustainable practices.


In conclusion, sustainable palm oil is a crucial step toward addressing the environmental and social issues associated with conventional production. By choosing sustainably produced palm oil, we can contribute to the protection of our planet’s forests, biodiversity, and the well-being of local communities. As consumers, we have the power to drive positive change and encourage the industry to adopt more ethical and sustainable practices. So, the next time you shop, choose sustainable palm oil and help create a greener and more ethical future for our planet.


Oliver started on everything home and art-related, from interior to gardening, as he has a great passion for art. Growing up in a home where nature was cherished, Oliver always felt strongly connected to trees and the environment. While he doesn’t hold a degree in environmental science or forestry, his self-directed learning and exploration have shaped his viewpoints. Oliver found a way to channel his love of art to the environment through contributions to the Tenereteam blog. In his free time, he often finds himself capturing the beauty of nature through photography or staying updated on the latest climate research.

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