Palm oil is extracted from the fruit of the African oil palm (Elaeis guineensis), grown on plantations and harvested in bunches from trees that grow over 25 metres high. This fruit is pressed at nearby mills and then transported across the world to refineries, where it is processed further so that it can be used to fry foods, manufacture consumer goods, or even as a biofuel.

For more than 50 years, industrial oil palm plantations have replaced ancient forests with a monocultural crop that cannot support the same levels of biodiversity as forest. Over four million hectares of forest – equivalent to more than five million football fields – were lost between 1990 and 2005 in Indonesia alone due to palm oil production, and over the last 10 years, the number of plantations has trebled globally to cover over 18 million hectares worldwide. By 2020, it’s estimated that oil palm plantations may take up more than this space in Indonesia alone.

But palm oil does not have to be this destructive. In order for palm oil production to be certified as sustainable, it must meet a set of stringent requirements covering social, environmental, and economic aspects of production.

Sustainable plantations must have strict policies to maintain high conservation value areas, protect endangered species, and allow animals to migrate through wildlife corridors. They also use renewable energy and limit carbon emissions by committing zero deforestation and no development on peatlands.

KSI Sumatra High Conservation Value forest corridor in an Indonesian oil palm landscape © Calley Beamish

KSI Sumatra High Conservation Value forest corridor in an Indonesian oil palm landscape © Calley Beamish

ZSL sits on the governing board of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), the industry’s largest certification body, which currently covers over 20% of all palm oil produced worldwide.

RSPO certification requires companies to follow best practices, such as maintaining healthy soil to increase yields, preserving water courses, reducing pollution and carbon emissions, using renewable energy and natural pest control, and above all, protecting biodiversity.

In order to meet the growing demand for palm oil without further destruction of tropical rainforests, growers will need to consider planting on degraded land as well as finding ways to increase crop yield by environmentally friendly means.

The RSPO works across the palm oil industry, including with growers, investors, retailers and NGOs. It has set the global standards for certification by developing eight principles, each with an associated set of criteria.

RSPO Principles and Criteria (P&C) for certification

The P&Cs form the basis of the RSPO certification scheme. First drawn up in 2007 and revised in 2013, the P&Cs comprise eight basic principles:

  1. Commitment to Transparency
  2. Compliance with Applicable Laws and Regulations
  3. Commitment to Long–term Economic and Financial Viability
  4. Use of appropriate Best Practices by Growers and Millers
  5. Environmental Responsibility and Conservation of Natural Resources and Biodiversity
  6. Responsible Consideration of Employees, and of Individuals and Communities Affected by Growers and Mills
  7. Responsible Development of New Plantings
  8. Commitment to Continuous Improvement in Key Areas of Activity

The RSPO P&Cs encompass a variety of environmental, social and economic criteria:


In order to achieve RSPO certification, growers must be assessed by a third-party RSPO-accredited certification body every five years, with an annual audit for continued compliance.

The current P&Cs can be found here on the RSPO website, together with a breakdown of the indicators and guidance on how to become certified.

New Planting Procedures

Once an oil palm plantation has been established the trees start to bear fruit within three years. The fruit can then be harvested all year round, with the lifespan of an oil palm plantation lasting around 20 to 30 years. These characteristics make oil palm one of the most productive vegetable oil crops on the planet.

The RPSO has criteria in place for its members to ensure the responsible development of new plantings. Since 2005, new plantations can only be certified as sustainable if planted on land that was not converted from primary or High Conservation Value (HCV) forest, as covered under Principle 7 of the RSPO’s Principles and Criteria (P&C) – Responsible Development of New Plantings.

The RPSO also established its New Planting Procedures (NPP) in 2010, which consists of a set of assessments and verification activities to be conducted by growers and certification bodies prior to a new oil palm development being established, in order to help guide responsible planting and to ensure that any new developments do not negatively impact primary forest, High Conservation Values (HCV), High Carbon Stock (HCS), fragile and marginal soils or local people’s lands.

If a grower is an RSPO member at the time of planning the new development, the grower must complete the NPP process. If land was cleared after 2010 but did not comply with the NPP requirements (for example, if the grower was not an RSPO member at the time), then the grower must ensure that they comply with Principle 7 at the time of certification.

For new plantings that occurred before the NPP was established (between November 2005 and 31 December 2009), the NPP does not apply, but the grower must comply with Principle 7 which includes requirements such as Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC), Social and Environment Impact Assessment (SEIA), and HCV assessment.


What initiatives go beyond the RSPO standard?

While the RSPO is the largest global certification standard, there are also a number of other voluntary and mandatory standards that apply to palm oil. Certification schemes vary in their aims, scope, and methodologies, and each scheme has strengths and weaknesses.

The Palm Oil Innovation Group (POIG) is an initiative between environmental and civil society organisations and industry companies that aims to build upon the RSPO Principles and Criteria (P&Cs) and existing company commitments – especially on issues of deforestation, carbon stocks, biodiversity, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, pesticide use and social relations.

Launched at the Tropical Forest Alliance meeting on 28th June 2013 in Jakarta, the POIG Charter holds that certain P&C should set clearer performance standards for certified growers with the following recommendations:

  • Introduce a High Carbon Stock (HCS) approach to land development
  • Maintain and restore peatlands and prohibit their clearance
  • Publicly report GHG emissions from all sources
  • Minimize the use of chemical fertilizers and toxic pesticides
  • Prohibit cultivation of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs)
  • Manage water sources and their use responsibly and transparently
  • Protect and conserve wildlife through High Conservation Value (HCV) assessment

The High Carbon Stock Approach (HCSA) Steering Group is a separate development that governs an established methodology supporting industry stakeholders to implement commitments to end deforestation associated with the production of palm oil and other commodities. Established in 2014, the group was formed to oversee the further development of the methodology and its use in the field.

The Sustainable Palm Oil Manifesto (SPOM) Group also aims to build upon the standards set by the RSPO, of which all signatories are members. Five of the largest oil palm growers in the industry were the first to sign the Manifesto, which commits its signatories to supply chain sustainability through three main objectives:

  • No deforestation in High Carbon Stock (HCS) forest areas and the protection of peatlands
  • To create traceable and transparent supply chains
  • To provide positive economic and social impacts for people and communities

The SPOM Group initiated the HCS Study to define what constitutes High Carbon Stock according to its Steering Committee, which produced an overview report in December 2015.

In response to these developments, the RSPO launched RSPO Next as a means of engaging member companies that have met the current requirements and the P&Cs, and in addition, through their voluntary policies and actions, have exceeded them.

To find out more about what other standards are available, visit the standards page.


Watch this video from The Guardian to find out more about the future of sustainable palm oil.

Last updated: 20/10/2016