The launch of an on-pack logo will give the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) a consumer-facing presence and raise public awareness about palm oil. But it will also mean that criticisms of the RSPO voiced by groups such as Greenpeace are likely to attract more media attention. Ben Cooper reports.

The launch last week of an on-pack logo by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) could be a significant step towards building a more sustainable supply chain for palm oil.

In addition to raising consumer awareness of the palm oil issue, it gives those companies leading the way an opportunity to project the fact directly to consumers, and those which have moved more slowly an added incentive to join the party. 

On the other hand, some campaigners say such logos place the onus on consumers, rather than the companies themselves, to make a sustainable choice, and suggest some companies may bask in the 'halo' of a sustainable product which accounts for a small proportion of their sales while doing little about the larger bulk of their business.

On the face of it, the RSPO could well do with the boost that the logo could provide. While it can be seen as a model of multi-stakeholder collaboration, the RSPO has been criticised for the slow pace at which it has progressed.

However, that pace has stepped up considerably over the past 12 months. Production capacity of Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO) stood at 3.2m tonnes in November 2010 and is forecast to reach between 10m and 12m tonnes by the beginning of 2016. CSPO production in 2011 is expected to reach just over 4m tonnes.

Adam Harrison, senior policy officer for food and agriculture at WWF and a member of the RSPO executive board, believes the creation of the logo will encourage other companies to source sustainable palm oil. "I think if it gets enough pick-up where people start to recognise it and distinguish at a brand level between companies that are offering it and companies that aren't I think that's when you are going to see a lot more people contemplating going through the effort of sorting out their supply chain so they can use it."

Belinda Howell, who runs UK environmental consultancy Decarbonize and represents the Retailers Palm Oil Working Group on the RSPO, says both retailers and brand manufacturers have been behind the creation of a logo, which has also been supported by NGO and supplier members. She believes the logo, which will begin to appear on products early next year, will be a catalyst for growth. 

The key problem for the RSPO has been take-up of CSPO in the market. With some companies put off by a price premium on the sustainable product, take-up of CSPO was at one stage only running at around 27%. The rest was being sold as generic palm oil, leaving producers with scant reward for the considerable effort made to produce sustainably. 

However, the RSPO says take-up has risen to around 60% and is hoping it will reach at least 75% by the end of 2011. The current high price of commodity palm oil may serve to reduce the price differential which could be positive for CSPO shipments. "The fact that supplies of CSPO are now coming through the supply chain onto the market, it seems to me that it is the ideal moment to launch a trademark, to recognise that investment, those efforts that those companies that are doing it have made," Howell says.

Harrison also believes "the time is right" to launch a logo. "To date the RSPO has largely functioned as a business to business communication venue rather than a consumer one, and I think it's really welcome that people are starting to think about it as a consumer issue."

Harrison says this also underlines that companies have more confidence in the long-term supply of CSPO. "It shows that they've got a lot more of a sense of security that this isn't a flash in the pan, and that the suppliers of sustainable palm oil are going to be able to supply into the future, the volumes will be there, the prices will be right."

However, campaign organisations such as Greenpeace are concerned that the logo places too much of the onus on consumers to choose a sustainable product and not enough on companies to make their entire supply chain sustainable. "We can't do this forever and we can't do this for every single product," says Ian Duff, forests campaigner at Greenpeace UK. "We have to look to the companies to make decisions. At the end of the day we can't have 50 logos on a Mars bar."

While Howell recognises that this is a valid point, she stresses that companies' engagement with the RSPO is not about putting the logo on a certain product but a process of making their entire supply chains sustainable. "All of the members of the RSPO are committed to sourcing CSPO whether or not there's a logo there."

Harrison believes that it would be unacceptable if the logo was used to allow companies to "cherry-pick" where they used sustainable palm oil. "The logo is not going to be seen by anyone in the RSPO as the only way a company would engage in the process. All the legwork and hard work is coming in their business to business relationships they'll have with their supply chains and the manufacturers which they use. And we would expect a company not just to cherry-pick a single product line to have a logo on and not bother to do anything about sustainable palm oil in the rest of their products. We would expect them to go 100% and put a logo on where and when they think it's most appropriate."

Duff's reservations extend beyond his concerns about an over-reliance on logos. Greenpeace has criticised the RSPO over its standards, in particular because they have so far not taken into account greenhouse gas emissions in palm oil production, and its enforcement processes. "A logo is only as good as the standards that underpin it," Duff says. "So our call would be for the RSPO to endeavour to improve its standards and to ensure that members are sticking to them."

Dr Tom Macmillan of the Food Ethics Council shares Duff's reservations about an over-reliance on labels. He also believes the launch of the logo could further inflame the debate among environmental campaigners regarding the RSPO standards.

"Labels can help consumers make greener, fairer choices, but how far should we rely on them?" Macmillan asks, adding: "The extra dimension in this case stems from the controversy within the environmental movement over the RSPO. Labelling products may add fuel to that fire even if it boosts the programme's image among shoppers in the short term."

Harrison says the RSPO is working to resolve the question of greenhouse gas emissions and recognises the validity of Greenpeace's criticisms. "These criticisms are valid but they are not being ignored by the RSPO." He also points out that the RSPO has appointed Accreditation Services International, an independent accreditation body which also works for the Forest Stewardship Council and the Marine Stewardship Council, to approve its certification bodies.

To a degree, by launching the logo the RSPO is upping the ante in the debate with campaigners over its standards. The logo will raise awareness around the issue of palm oil but as the public profile of the RSPO itself rises, any criticisms that are voiced by campaigners will have far greater traction in the media and with the public.