Responsible sourcing and palm oil – a #ProvenanceLive recap

Image credit: ZSL

In last week’s ProvenanceLive, we were joined by Eleanor Spencer, a Palm Oil Technical Advisor at the intersection of business and biodiversity at the Zoological Society of London (ZSL). In recent years, palm oil has been under the spotlight due to its impact on deforestation and biodiversity. Yet today, it’s a common ingredient in so many of our products, from biscuits and ice cream to lipsticks and soaps, with palm oil consumption quadrupling between 1995 and 2015 (The Guardian, 2019). We wanted to get a better understanding of where it comes from, how it’s farmed and what options are available to the cosmetics and food industries to have a more positive impact.


The ZSL is an international conservation charity, working closely with businesses and financial institutions on key conservation issues. They assess the major players in key commodities on the most important environmental, social and governance issues present in those supply chains and work with them to improve engagement and transparency.

Our key takeaways

  • Palm oil is a versatile, high-yielding commodity. So if you’re looking at alternative ingredients, it’s important to check how much more resource that alternative would require. For example, Eleanor shared that “palm oil represents 35% of the world’s oil, on 10% of the world’s allocated resource for crops.”
  • Aim to source 100% certified RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil). The RSPO is the leading certification for palm oil that brings together all the various stakeholders within the supply chain to ensure palm oil isn’t causing deforestation or the resulting negative environmental and social impacts from deforestation.
  • Get to know your supply chain. Sourcing palm oil responsibly and sustainably is nuanced and can be complex. As you work towards 100% of your sourcing being certified, engage with the debate and industry best practices to inform a clear policy and strategy.
  • Talk to your shoppers. Although recent press coverage on palm oil has been important to raise the issues, a blanket ban on palm oil is not necessarily the solution. The supply chains behind all commodities, from coffee to cocoa are complex. Taking a long-term approach to sourcing certified sustainable commodities and helping to educate consumers along the way will support widespread progress.

Top questions

Q: As large FMCG companies wake up to the risks and consumers become more aware, what interesting things are changing in the market?

A: “On the downstream end we’ve certainly seen a marked increase in efforts on traceability and transparency in the last few years. Unilever and other big companies have started releasing more data on their supplier lists and having all of that data available makes it easier to hold them to account on their own policies and commitments. It also helps us as an industry use that data to try and improve the supply chain. 

So multiple stakeholders, companies in different sectors, as well as smallholders and NGOs can patch together a landscape and look at it holistically rather than just managing sustainability on a case-by-case basis. And that’s an important step, particularly from a conservation point of view. 

Now there’s also various kinds of satellite mapping initiatives to have more of a real time view. Once you’ve got that traceability data in place and you know where your supply chain is and where you’re sourcing from, you can start to track whether there is deforestation in your supply chain and then engage with those parties. There’s no silver bullet to a complex issue like this, but having all of these approaches is an important step.”

Q: How would you advise businesses in supporting RSPO? And what is the landscape out there? Are there alternative certifications or schemes in place?

A: “We wouldn’t consider that there are any other schemes that are quite at the level of the RSPO on palm oil. There are national standards in Indonesia and Malaysia, which are useful but are not going far enough compared to the RSPO. 

As with any big certification scheme that aims to change a whole industry, there are obviously some challenges. And those absolutely need to be recognised and addressed, and the RSPO is working on addressing a lot of those challenges, particularly around auditing. 

As I say there’s no silver bullet and we shouldn’t rely purely on certification. It is just one tool, but it is a very important one, as it has buy-in of the stakeholders within it and there isn’t an equivalent that pushes companies as far. So it’s a really important part, I would say, of moving towards more sustainable palm oil.”

Q: Where is the consumer in all of this? Do you have any views on how their education is changing and how businesses and brands should think about how to talk about palm oil? 

A: “It is really tricky, particularly because of some really high profile campaigns, mostly when consumers are aware of palm oil, [they are] in this negative framing. And I do think it’s important that people are aware of the issues associated with unsustainable production, but it can make it tricky, when it’s such a complex topic, to then engage consumers on understanding the importance of sustainable palm oil versus no palm oil. So, I think it’s important brands and retailers communicate that complexity rather than shying away from it.”

Q: And finally, when you want to grab somebody’s attention that palm oil isn’t bad, what’s your favourite argument? 

A: “I think the fact that palm oil represents 35% of the world’s oil, on 10% of the world’s allocated resource for crops, quite quickly captures the nuance of thinking about which oil we’re using and the impact that oil is going to have on deforestation.”

Watch the full recording

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