- The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), the industry’s leading certifier of ethical compliance, has long faced scrutiny over its sustainability guidelines and how it responds to member companies’ frequent violations.
- Today, the organization is headed by veteran development professional Joseph D’Cruz, a self-professed newcomer to the industry who says he wants the RSPO to be less reactive and more proactive.
- In a wide-ranging interview with Mongabay, D’Cruz discusses why sustainability should be seen as an unending journey rather than an end goal, how the gap between sustainable and “conventional” palm oil is closing, and what role governments must play in driving greater sustainability.
- “When you watch the progress of platforms like the RSPO, sometimes on the outside it might seem frustratingly slow,” he says. “But that’s because you got to bring everybody along and that’s a very tricky challenge sometimes.”
Joseph D’Cruz has more than 20 years of experience in sustainability, having worked for various international organizations like the United Nations Development Programme and the World Economic Forum, on issues ranging from climate change to poverty eradication to disaster recovery.
But nothing’s kept him on the road more than his current job, as chief executive of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). The organization, with headquarters in Geneva and Kuala Lumpur, is at the forefront of efforts to encourage the growth and certification of sustainably grown palm oil.
“I have spent a lot of time talking to lots of people in the industry all over the world,” D’Cruz tells Mongabay. “I’ve traveled more this past year than I have in my life, believe it or not.”
The RSPO was formed in 2004 by a group of palm oil growers, buyers, investors and NGOs, in response to growing concerns over the impact of the rapidly growing industry.
Palm oil is now the most widely used vegetable oil in the world, due to its versatility and high yield. Buy something in a supermarket today and there’s a 50% chance it contains palm oil, from soap and toothpaste to chocolate and pot noodles.
As the industry expanded over the years to meet growing demand, concerns mounted over palm oil producers’ practices. Companies were, and continue to be, exposed for grabbing Indigenous lands, cutting down rainforests and driving critically endangered species like orangutans out of their habitat in the process.
When D’Cruz took the helm of the RSPO in March 2022, the organization was facing ongoing scrutiny for its role in promoting sustainable palm oil. Activists highlighted flaws in the RSPO’s auditing process, its track record in imposing corrective or punitive measures, and its effectiveness in curbing deforestation and solving human rights abuses committed by its members.
D’Cruz says he wants to take RSPO beyond this reactionary approach, using his tenure to start a broader conversation on what sustainability means for the industry.
“Sustainability is very multidimensional,” he says. “It’s not just that we have to deal with environment issues, social issues, [and] economic issues. It’s that those issues are very interconnected.”
D’Cruz’s tenure also comes at a time when an increasing number of consumer markets, notably the European Union, are adopting no-deforestation regulations that try to eliminate deforestation within the supply chain of major commodities, including oil palm.
Mongabay’s Hans Nicholas Jong interviewed D’Cruz to discuss his first year leading the RSPO, the persistent criticism of the certification body, and why it’s important to redefine the definition of sustainability.
The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Mongabay: What changes have you brought to the RSPO? What are the most significant changes? And what changes do you think need to be made in the future?
Joseph D’Cruz: I don’t really think about what changes have I brought to the organization. I think as someone who comes into the sector new, it’s a little bit arrogant to think you sort of walk in and rearrange the furniture on day one.
I have spent a lot of time talking to lots of people in the industry all over the world. I’ve travelled more this past year than I have in my life, believe it or not. But I think what’s coming out of that is the sense that the RSPO has accomplished a lot in the last 20 years. It’s also an important opportunity for us to sit down and kind of rethink and maybe reframe what sustainability means in an industry like this and how we move it forward.
I think in a lot of my conversations with members of our board, with my colleagues and my team and others, you do get a sense that for a very long time, the conversation around sustainability in the palm sector has been very responsive, very reactive.
When the industry gets criticized on an issue, there’s a huge scramble to respond to that and demonstrate that we can overcome that, whether this was deforestation, haze, forest fires, species lost or, more recently, issues around labor conditions and Indigenous rights and others.
And I think the thing that we are sensing is that this is a good moment for us as an industry to take a step back and actually define in a much more well-rounded way what the idea of a sustainable industry is. And to be able to then use that as a benchmark to say, “This is actually where we want to go,” rather than feeling as though we have to respond because we’re hit with an immediate set of criticism or a crisis.
And I say well-rounded way because I think the other thing that’s become very obvious and I believe will become even more obvious in the years to come is that sustainability is very multidimensional. It’s not just that we have to deal with environment issues, social issues, economic issues. It’s that those issues are very interconnected.
And so we need to be able to define what a sustainable palm oil industry, what a sustainable palm oil value chain, looks like in a way that shows the connections and the dependencies across all of these. Especially when you’re working increasingly with local communities, with smallholders, where you can’t separate environmental standards from the livelihoods and the health of the community around them or from their economic status. You can’t expect poor marginal farmers to be able to meet the kind of standards that a large global agribusiness can.
So we’re starting to think about how do we frame sustainability in a way that makes sense for this industry for the next 20 years or so. And hopefully that’s a conversation and a set of thinking that you’ll see more and more within the RSPO fraternity.
Mongabay: Do you think that conversation of redefining sustainability will be challenging since there’s a lot of stakeholders involved?
Joseph D’Cruz: Yeah, absolutely. I’ve been working on sustainability for most of my working career and those conversations are always challenging because if you’re doing it right, you’re balancing a lot of different priorities, and you’re balancing the preferences and priorities of a whole range of different stakeholders.
So I give you an example: On the one hand, it is relatively easy to see that to say that when you’re looking at sustainability, you need to balance environmental considerations with social considerations, the balance between protecting the environment, dealing with the climate emergency, versus economic development, having an economically sustainable industry.
But that conversation and that balance is very different if you’re talking to a multibillion-dollar global agribusiness versus if you’re talking to a community of smallholders on the ground in Papua. What the balance is, what the expectations are, are very different depending on where the conversation is happening.
It’s as one of my former colleagues in the U.N. says, it’s a three-dimensional chess game being played at light speed. They’re trying to balance a whole lot of different priorities but it is very, very important for this to be a conversation. It’s not something that I think can be driven only by a small group of stakeholders. It’s not something that can be driven only by a group of experts as you might have in the RSPO or in other sustainability organizations. The conversation has to be sustainable because it is something that brings everybody along and that is hard, that takes a lot of effort and that’s why when you watch the progress of platforms like the RSPO, sometimes on the outside it might seem frustratingly slow. But that’s because you got to bring everybody along and that’s a very tricky challenge sometimes.
Mongabay: So what are the roles of governments in palm oil-producing countries like Indonesia and Malaysia in this conversation, especially since there have been calls from the RSPO for governments to implement stronger policies?
Joseph D’Cruz: I certainly believe that governments play an incredibly critical role in the sustainability conversation. If you look at the RSPO, it is a voluntary body of a subset of the industry. We’re about 20% of the global volume. We’re about 5,500 members worldwide right now, companies and organizations. The value of the RSPO is you have a group of people there who believe this is an industry and a value chain that can be sustainable, and are willing to invest in figuring out and demonstrating what that means on the ground.
And because this is 20% of the industry, which is not small, when we demonstrate within the RSPO fraternity that it’s possible to address deforestation or climate change or labor rights and the dignity of workers or Indigenous rights, you’re demonstrating it in a way that’s actually replicable for the majority of the rest of the industry.
If 20% of the industry can do it, it’s actually very valid to say everyone else more or less should be able to. The opportunity in what we do then is that it becomes a useful reference point when governments are thinking about setting policy.
I’ve worked with policymakers a lot in my life and one of the challenges when you’re setting policy, especially if this is mandatory, is having a sense of, “Is what we’re expecting, what we are demanding, achievable or not?”
So take deforestation-free supply chains, no-deforestation policies. If within the RSPO fraternity over a number of years we’ve demonstrated it’s possible to have a no-deforestation policy and still produce in a sustainable and profitable way, then it’s much easier for policymakers at national or local level to turn to the industry and say, “You know what, everybody should be able to do this.” If groups of smallholders in Riau and in Sumatra can meet these criteria, there’s really no excuse for other people to say “We can’t do it.”
So, I see the balance between the voluntary standard and national policy being the RSPO having the ability — because we are voluntary — to test, to pilot new ideas, to figure out how do you deal with deforestation and labor rights and Indigenous community priorities and climate change and other things, and moving the most committed part of the industry forward, but then also creating a pathway that allows government to build regulations — and those regulations are the thing that lift the entire industry up.
So the whole reason I find the government regulatory space so critical is because that’s actually the one way you lift the whole industry, which the RSPO will never do. The RSPO is never going to be 100% of the oil palm industry and I wouldn’t want it to be. That’s the role of national standards. That’s the role of national policy.
Mongabay: What are specific government policies that can be implemented to help the RSPO?
Joseph D’Cruz: I would caveat that by saying I’m not looking at them as policies that help the RSPO. I’m looking at them as policies that help the industry.
So basic ones. If you look at Malaysia and Indonesia, both governments have a policy commitment to halt deforestation, implemented in both cases through national standards as well as policies and regulations. So MSPO in Malaysia, ISPO in Indonesia, as well as environment regulations in others.
That’s very important for us because it ultimately builds a space where we know that the question of deforestation is something that we can largely assume is already tackled in those spaces. In a perfect world, what this means in our RSPO system is we don’t have to focus as much attention on tracking and verifying and validating that there’s no deforestation; we can focus our attention at other issues.
Where we are in the carbon space? Where are we in the labor space? So because there’s so many issues in sustainability, the more of these issues that are being taken care of at the jurisdiction level, the more space we have as the RSPO to focus on those other places where more work needs to be done or more thinking or more testing needs to be done.
Mongabay: The aim of the RSPO is to demonstrate that it is actually possible to achieve sustainability in the palm oil industry and demonstrate it in a way that’s replicable to other stakeholders. But there are still some gaps within the RSPO compared to the standard set by the EU in its no-deforestation regulation (EUDR). What are the gaps and how do you plan to close them?
Joseph D’Cruz: One of the things that we are very conscious of in the RSPO is that when you talk about sustainability, it’s actually quite unproductive, I’d say almost dangerous, to talk about achieving sustainability. Because you create an impression that if you’ve ticked all these boxes and you’ve achieved these criteria, then you can relax, you’re sustainable and the job is done.
The fact is there is no business sector, country, community in the world that is fully sustainable. Sustainability is a continuous journey. Now we have a certification scheme and what that certification says is according to the collective expectations we have in the RSPO, you have achieved the level that we believe is where we should be right now. But we also review that and improve that continuously because that standard also has to keep moving up.
It has to keep responding to the expectations of our stakeholders, our communities, our regulators, our buyers and our consumers, about what should be the standard for sustainability in the industry.
So the way sustainability is framed is always going to be different in different places. So when you look at the EU regulation, first of all, it’s not a sustainability regulation. It’s a deforestation-free regulation. So it only focuses on that one dimension of sustainability with a little bit of add-ons because it also does reference FPIC [free, prior and informed consent] and Indigenous rights, and a few other labor and rights issues. It’s very much focused on deforestation.
So your question was the gap or the difference between how EUDR frames it and how we frame it. One of the biggest gaps that I’m conscious of is in how you define deforestation.
So EUDR uses the kind of accepted FAO definition, which is very spatially based: any area of forests more than half a hectare [1.2 acres] that has trees of more than 10 meters high [33 feet] below the 10% threshold.
RSPO uses more of a quality, bottom-up definition of forest, meaning we use the HCV-HCSA framework to identify which patches of the landscape are of high-value forests and conserve those.
So it’s two different approaches and you can understand why that is. In the RSPO, we’ve had the ability over years for our members to build that bottom-up evidence base, to make it a requirement that our members actually do HCV-HCSA assessments, identify these specific high-quality forests and protect those.
The EU regulation, because it’s multicommodity across the entire tropical region of the world, they can’t take such a bottom-up, quality-driven approach to conserving forests. They’ve taken very much almost top-down spatial coverage area.
One of the things that we are doing in the RSPO is we’re actually looking at our systems, particularly our traceability platform, to make sure that it can be used as a vehicle by which our members can demonstrate compliance with the EU requirement.
And part of that is identifying where our systems already pretty much exactly match what the EU is requiring and also places where we need to watch for those differences.
One small challenge there, of course, is the EU is still in the process of defining a lot of the specific details and implementation guidelines. So we are working closely and trying to track what they’re doing and as much as we can to support that so that we’re all clear as to what we’re looking for, and we’re trying to develop it in a way that’s actually most effective and most implementable on the ground.
Mongabay: It’s important to be able to trace the entire supply chain of palm oil. But there have been cases of palm oil being sold to the so-called leakage market, which doesn’t adopt a no-deforestation policy. Do you think this poses a risk to the industry?
Joseph D’Cruz: There’s a supply chain for product that’s considered sustainable and then there’s supply chain for other stuff. When you look at the market for “conventional” palm oil right now, even in those markets, there’s actually a lot of progress being made on sustainability.
So if you look at the three largest markets that are mostly conventional right now, which are Indonesia, India and China, even in those markets, uptake of sustainable palm oil is increasing. In Indonesia, because it’s a production market, with standards like the ISPO, the entire conventional volume is actually going to become more sustainable over time.
If you look at countries like China and India, slowly there is actually a greater focus [on sustainability]. In India right now, it’s really interesting because there’s a focus on developing a domestic production market. So in that space, inevitably they’re going to be thinking about how to make that sustainable. China also has a range of policies around green supply chains.
So I don’t see it as a black and white of good and bad. I see it as different markets responding to their own needs, developing standards and expectations of sustainability that increase over time.
The RSPO is very focused on the markets that have the highest sustainability criteria. Our standard is set very much to respond to the markets, the consumers, the consumer goods companies that are the most demanding. So that’s why there’s a perception in the industry our standards are high, but I don’t see it as a binary of “if you’re RSPO, you are sustainable. If you’re not RSPO, you’re unsustainable.”
We see and we track a lot of progress being made in the broader market that is moving us in this direction, and a big part of what we’re trying to do now is to build that connection more strongly.
So our teams are investing a lot more now in working in India and China, building engagement there, talking with the buyers and the supply chain there to make the case for sustainability, and we’re slowly seeing improvements over time.
I’m actually pretty confident that you will see much stronger focus on sustainability in these markets. Doesn’t mean you’re all of a sudden going to see RSPO uptake becoming 60-80%. It does mean that in those markets people are going to start defining expectations around sustainability that the industry will have to respond to. And at some point, the gap between where we are at the moment and where those markets are will close.
Mongabay: What are the challenges of engaging in dialogue with “conventional” markets like India and China that may slow down the progress being made at the moment?
Joseph D’Cruz: I think in my few conversations with people in those markets, one of the first challenges I’ve noticed is that there’s a perception that if they require or they want to source palm oil that is more sustainably produced, that it’s going to be expensive.
The reality is — in fact I think our colleagues in WWF did a really good study on this a couple of years ago — when you look at the price difference for many consumer products, if the palm oil was sourced sustainably versus conventional, it’s miniscule, it’s a rounding error.
So one of the first things we need to do is get past the perception that’s been created that sustainability is unaffordable. It’s absolutely affordable, particularly in large and growing markets like this.
It may not be today affordable for every use. So if I take a market like India, for instance, understandably a food vendor selling a fried food on the street in Mumbai is going to be extremely sensitive to the price of the cooking oil she uses. It’s a huge part of her input, the price difference there is massive.
But a consumer goods manufacturer who’s making a toothpaste or a lipstick can very easily afford to be able to source sustainably. So a very large market like that is where we need to start making the case, in those supply chains, in those product categories.
Number one, it is absolutely affordable. And number two, you have consumers who would actually be happy to know that the product that’s going into what they’re buying is sustainably resourced and is high quality.
So I imagine in many of these markets we start to see changes happening in specific product lines and value chains before the entire market moves forward. But absolutely everybody I’ve talked to who knows the markets believes there is potential for progress and that we’re going to be seeing progress in the next few years. And that’s something I think that we’re quite excited about.
Mongabay: Why do you think this perception of sustainability being unaffordable exists in the first place?
Joseph D’Cruz: Perhaps part of it is because the earliest demand for really high-quality, sustainably sourced products came from the highest-cost markets. So maybe there’s a connection with, “Oh, the sustainable stuff is actually created only for the markets that are very rich.”
But I strongly believe that’s a perception that will change over time. You take the Malaysia market, for instance. The Malaysian National Standard (MSPO) is now mandatory in Malaysia. You can’t get a production license unless you’re producing according to the MSPO standard.
I believe if you go back in time, 20 years ago, and you told the industry you’re going to have to do all of this, they would have said, “Oh, this is impossible. We’ll never be able to do it. We’re going to go out of business.”
Today, it’s the norm in the industry, everybody’s figured out how to do it. So, over time, as with many industries, it becomes easier, cheaper, more economical to be able to meet these quality standards.
Every industry, every consumer line in the world continuously improves quality. And when you talk about sustainable industry, that’s essentially what we’ve been doing over time and that’s what we’ll continue to do.
Mongabay: The RSPO has been around for nearly two decades and has received its fair share of criticism. One is about the consultation process, with auditors not visiting communities that are actually relevant to the case. What’s your response to this criticism?
Joseph D’Cruz: When you talk about the broad, sort of generic criticism that’s leveled, I would say, inevitably, any system that is audit-based with field assessors is never going to feel perfect.
Just think about it in practical terms. If you’re an auditor and you are competent and you’re committed and you’re trying to do a good job and you’re asked to audit a plantation in a remote location which has a whole bunch of communities around it, the only thing you can do is to sample.
And you try your best to triangulate, to identify who the right people are to talk to. But are you going to be able to come back to the certification body or to the RSPO or the plantation and say “I’ve talked to everybody”? No. Logically not.
Is there going to be somebody there who wanted to have their voice heard that wasn’t heard? Yes. So that’s where you have to understand, sustainability is not a checkbox. It’s not “We’ve done this or we’re not.” It’s how do we get better, how do we use better tools, how do we use better social science approaches, anthropology and others, to understand how you identify key opinion leaders in groups. How do you also start layering data?
So within the RSPO system, we are looking increasingly at things like more of a risk-based approach. Can we actually use analytics to say, “Alright, in this particular region or in this particular production context, based on historical data, the kind of issues we’re seeing the most of are this, this and this.”
And therefore be able to signal to our auditors and our field teams to say, “When you go into that location or this kind of a production landscape, look in particular for these issues.”
This has been done. Many of our certification bodies or assurance bodies have been doing this over years, but on the RSPO side as well, we are looking at that to say, “What can we do to improve in this space?”
Are we ever going to get to a point where no individual in a local community feels unhappy? No, not going to happen.
And in 20-plus years working in development and sustainability, I’ve never come across a solution that’s going to make that happen. So it’s always going to be a question of are we doing the best we can? Are we identifying where the problems are and working with our partners and our members on the ground to be able to respond to those problems as quickly as they occur?
But it’s a continuous journey. It’s not something where we’re ever going to be able to say we’re declaring victory.
Mongabay: What about concerns over the conflict of interest in the system, with auditors being paid by companies?
Joseph D’Cruz: There are obviously different models for doing this, and there are pros and cons for each.
We have had discussions in the past within our governance structure about the merits of this, about whether this is the model that suits us best, but also the practicalities and the costs of moving to other models.
Because don’t forget, the RSPO operates globally: we have production in 25, 26 different countries. We have supply chain operations in about 100-over countries. So the sheer logistics involved in trying to have a more centralized system will be challenging and we don’t necessarily believe it will provide the same quality.
Remember also the organizations that we work with to do the certification on the ground, these are professionals. These are the companies that audit food and safety regulations and engineering regulations, and others in a huge range of different areas.
So I think part of this is remembering that there is expertise and a big body of evidence behind the people who are doing this work on the ground.
Are they perfect? Is the system perfect? No. But I think we do need to recognize that the RSPO system, the fact that we’ve created a structure where independent third parties go in and actually ask these questions and allow individuals on the ground to be able to give their views, that’s actually a huge achievement. If you map this against what happens in many other commodities by chains, we’re comparing ourselves with something that effectively doesn’t exist.
So again, sustainability — we need to continuously improve over time. But is this necessarily disastrous? No.
Mongabay: There’s also been criticism about the RSPO’s track record in actually punishing its members who have been found to be violating the RSPO’s principles and criteria. What’s your response to this?
Joseph D’Cruz: If you look back over time, the RSPO has had a number of instances where we have penalized, suspended, even removed a range of different members, including, in some cases, having suspended quite large and prominent RSPO members when there were violations found.
So I think the evidence shows that the RSPO as a collective, as a membership-based organization, has been willing to act where it’s necessary.
Because sustainability is so complex, in all of these individual cases, there always going to be differing opinions. As with anything that ends up being judged by an independent body, there will always be people who agree or disagree with those decisions.
I think what we need to focus on is to make sure that the expectations we set are clear, our process for holding members accountable is transparent, and anybody who feels they have a grievance has a mechanism by which those are voiced.
I think the best we can do is to make sure that everybody understands what the rules are and everybody has the opportunity to engage in that process. And on that score, I think our systems right now are pretty good. They’re not perfect. But they are pretty good and we are also always looking at continuous improvement.
So to give you one example: our grievance system that allows anybody who’s affected to file a grievance against a member company. We’re in the middle of doing a review of our grievance system, it’s public as well. There’ve been consultations and this is a pretty intense process working with experts in the field to try and figure out how we can make the system better, more responsive, more transparent, better able to deal with the issues.
But if you’re asking, do I expect at some point that there will be no unhappiness or no disagreement? No. It’s always going to be something where we’re trying to do the best we can.
Mongabay: Is there anything else that you’d like to mention that you think is really important but you haven’t really got the chance to talk about?
Joseph D’Cruz: I think if there’s one insight that I would like our broader ecosystem of stakeholders to understand is sustainability being a journey of continuous improvement. And what I would hope is that what our members do, what we as an RSPO fraternity do together, is always assessed on that basis.
I’m not asking for a free pass. I’m not saying we can always improve. It’s both ways. Have we made progress and are we continuing to make progress? So with our members on the ground and with the RSPO as a platform, what I really hope is that when people hold us accountable — and I want them to hold us accountable — it is in that frame, what we’re doing as an industry, as a group today, better than what it was last year or the year before. And are we demonstrating that next year and the year after, we’re actually committed to continue to improve?
So if there’s one thing I would like to leave as a final thought is: use that as the benchmark. For the RSPO as an organization but also for all our members, sustainability is a continuous process. We always will have more things we need to deal with. And I know that for a lot of people who work on this day to day, it feels exhausting.
It is the most important message. We need to be committed to the fact that we need to continuously improve over time. And I hope we can use the RSPO as a vehicle for the industry to continue having that conversation.
What are the challenges that we need to focus on today compared to what are the challenges we were focusing on 10 years ago? And what are the challenges that we need to focus on tomorrow because we’re starting to see that this is becoming a sustainability concern?
Mongabay: So are you asking for your members and stakeholders to not go easy on the RSPO?
Joseph D’Cruz: Absolutely, but to ask us a question in that frame: How are we getting better? As the RSPO, as a secretariat, as a platform, how are we getting better?
And to ask our members the same question: How are you improving? How are you actually demonstrating that you are not just benchmarking yourself against what the industry was doing 10 years ago, you are responding to the expectations, the aspirations to sustainability that exists in the world today, and are preparing yourself for what those expectations and aspirations are going to be like 10 years from now.
Because those aspirations have changed over time. If you look at sustainability overall, what we expect today globally is very different from what we expected 20 years ago. And it will continue to be different because of all the challenges we’re facing. Population issues, climate emergency, the biodiversity crisis. There’s a lot of things that we as an industry, as a sector, need to be aware of. And I hope that everybody holds us accountable for that question: Are you making progress?
Mongabay: So I take it that sustainability is something that’s moving very rapidly, right?
Joseph D’Cruz: Sustainability is something that has to move very rapidly because sustainability is the challenge of responding to what’s changing in the world. And if you look out the window, what’s changing right now? Pollution, climate emergency, biodiversity crisis, food security crisis, resilience overall, natural disasters, the need to feed a growing population, the need to find jobs for young people in parts of the world with huge growth in populations. Sustainability is the answer to those questions. How are we answering those questions? And so it is something that is always going to evolve and I hope that we will see the RSPO as a place that is continuously, in a productive way, trying to find what those challenges are and work with our industry to find solutions.