“The challenge in China and India is to get them to move away from the belief that sustainability is expensive. China and India are both very price‐sensitive markets, and the initial reaction to innovations such as this is usually: will this cost more? ” – EMG Interview with Mr. Darrel Webber, Secretary General of the RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil)
EMG: What are lessons we could learn from Europe that could help speed up the process of moving towards a greater demand for sustainable palm oil in other regions?
Many European companies have clearly decided to take a stewardship role in this issue. They didn’t wait for consumers to ask for it; they decided that it was the right thing to do, and they did it. I think that’s very important. Because a few took this more pro‐active approach, that inspired others in Europe which influenced the market.
Of course, the battle is only half won in Europe. There is still a long way to go. There was some solidarity in some markets, like in the Netherlands where they took the lead with a national platform on sustainable palm oil. The industry there grouped together and decided that they would make a commitment by 2015 to bring in only sustainable palm oil to the Netherlands. That was then followed by a national commitment by the Belgians, and recently there’s been a commitment from the British government as well.
EMG: What do you see as the challenges that need to be overcome in order to create greater demand for sustainable palm oil in China and India, the two biggest users of palm oil?
These two countries are developing at such a rapid pace that it’s very hard to impress upon them that there are other things that are supposed to be on their agenda as well as growth, such as sustainability. The challenge in China and India is to get them to move away from the belief that sustainability is expensive. China and India are both very price‐sensitive markets, and the initial reaction to innovations such as this is usually: will this cost more?
The challenge is how to tell them that it is imperative to invest now, to ensure the security of their supply chain. Food security is very high on the agenda of China and India, so that’s probably the clearest message we should be communicating: linking sustainable supply chain to food security.
EMG: What are your biggest concerns for countries like Malaysia and Indonesia now – and 50 years from now – in terms of the effects on the cultivation of palm oil?
Malaysia and Indonesia started early in palm oil cultivation, so obviously they were first ones to make the mistakes. However, my fear is they didn’t learn fast enough to rectify these mistakes. There are now new countries starting to produce palm oil, especially in Africa and Latin America, and we know that these countries don’t intend to make the same mistakes. They have the benefit of starting while having learned the lessons of others’ mistakes, which makes it easier for them.
Secondly, because of the fact that sustainability was not taken into account in the early days of the industry – which was over a hundred years ago – the rapid expansion of palm oil is going to have negative impacts for generations, especially in the long‐term repercussions to the ecology of those areas. The challenge is whether we can mitigate these negative impacts and help change these practices.
EMG: What do you see as the key challenges and opportunities for the RSPO in the next 10 years?
The key challenge and opportunity will be how to make sustainable palm oil the mainstream. It’s a challenge because it has never been done before! Nobody has ever mainstreamed a sustainable commodity, but I think we have to try to be the first. I think a tipping point will occur when we have reached a target of 19% of all palm oil consumption being certified sustainable, but that’s just my view. The pace at which we’re growing today indicates that there is a real possibility of hitting that level within a decade, but more work needs to be done.
I think the RSPO is definitely an imperfect solution, but still a solution. It started off with a few individual organizations knowing that they would not be able to get the perfect solution, but at the same time knowing that they had to get started somewhere, at some point. I think the key thing people need to understand is that we are still evolving, and still innovating. We know we have a long journey ahead of us, but considering the upward trend of our growth, we are definitely heading in the right direction.
For more, click here for our article on Sustainable sourcing.