/ ©: James Morgan  / WWF International

Sustainable Palm Oil

Your shampoo, your ice cream, your margarine, your lipstick – all contain palm oil. Demand is still growing, as are oil palm plantations... but at what price to tropical forests and the biodiversity found there?


Better Production for a Living Planet

 / ©: WWF
The text on this page is an excerpt from the WWF Publication Better Production for a Living Planet (2012).

The most popular vegetable oil

Palm oil is used for food products, detergents, cosmetics and – increasingly – biofuel.

Global production of palm oil has doubled over the last decade. By 2000, palm oil was the most produced and traded vegetable oil (FAO 2002), accounting for 40% of all vegetable oils traded internationally. By 2006, the percentage had risen to 65% (FAO).

Worldwide demand for palm oil is expected to double again by 2020. New plantations are being developed and existing ones are being expanded in Indonesia, Malaysia and other Asian countries, as well as in Africa and Latin America.

But this expansion comes at the expense of tropical forest – which forms critical habitat for a large number of endangered species.

WWF Targets

2015: 25% of palm oil bought is RSPO certified

2020: 50% of palm oil boiught is RSPO certified


16.4$ of global palm oil production is RSPO certified sustainable (July 2013).
A procedure introduced by WWF aims to ensure that new palm oil plantations do not replace forests and areas of high conservation value.
Widespread loss of tropical forest and unique biodiversity, skyrocketing carbon emissions, indigenous peoples forced off their land: as knowledge of the negative impacts of palm oil production has grown, so has demand for a better alternative. Within three years of hitting the market in late 2008, certified sustainable palm oil (CSPO) made up nearly a tenth of global supply. Many leading companies have committed not to buy palm oil tainted by deforestation.

It’s impressive progress for the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), which WWF helped to set up in 2004. But with palm oil consumption expected to double by 2030, and triple by 2050, the biggest challenges are yet to come.

“The RSPO isn’t there to halt the expansion of the palm oil industry,” says Adam Harrison, WWF’s representative on the RSPO Executive Board. “The expansion of the palm oil industry will continue regardless – the laws of supply and demand will ensure as much. What the RSPO seeks to do is ensure that palm oil production is sustainable – both environmentally and socially. Part of that is making sure that land which is needed by wildlife and local people is not converted to new plantations.”

Strengthening RSPO Criteria

To manage this risk, WWF and New Britain Palm Oil (NBPOL), a founding member of the RSPO, proposed a procedure to ensure RSPO principles are followed when they matter most: when a new plantation is established.

According to Simon Lord, sustainability director at NBPOL, the New Planting Procedure (NPP), introduced in January 2010, “clearly distances responsible oil palm producers from deforestation”.

“The expansion of palm oil plantations into primary forests and high conservation value areas is the single greatest source of controversy in the palm oil sector,” says Simon. “The RSPO’s credibility is closely linked to its ability to assure stakeholders that its members are not associated with such expansion.

“The RSPO Principles and Criteria prohibit new plantings that replace primary forest or any area containing one or more high conservation values. They also prohibit new plantings on local people’s land without their free, prior and informed consent. The NPP provides assurance that these criteria are being met, and draws a line in the sand between sustainable and non-sustainable producers.”

Long-term Advantages

Sipef is one producer determined to belong to the former category. The Belgian agroindustrial company followed the NPP for a new site of around 7,000 hectares in Bengkulu, Sumatra, Indonesia, a province where oil palm cultivation is growing fast. Olivier Tichit, general manager for environment and conservation at Sipef, believes the NPP offers a long-term advantage.

“When you engage thoroughly with communities at the outset, a company is much more likely to avoid problems around land tenure claims later on,” he says. “And on the environmental side, if you carry out a good quality HCV [high conservation value] assessment as soon as possible, you can plan your development a lot better, as you know clearly how many hectares you can and cannot plant – it’s much more efficient.”

Following the NPP means the most environmentally and socially valuable areas will remain undeveloped – around 12 per cent of the land in the case of Sipef’s new site. This includes a 50m-wide section of degraded forest which connects a conservation area in its existing concession with a government-protected forest, providing a wildlife corridor for gibbons. Sipef will be responsible for actively managing this, protecting it from encroachment and illegal clearing.

There are business benefits too, says Adam: “The retailers and manufacturers at the top of the supply chain know that choosing suppliers that follow the NPP is the only sure-fire way to ensure that there is no deforestation involved.”

WWF also works towards innovative solutions that would direct palm oil development away from forest areas and make ‘degraded lands' more attractive.

More examples of how transforming markets can make a difference can be found here. 


Palm oil is a leading driver for deforestation in South East Asia.

  • Most productive source of vegetable oil per hectare;
  • As a tree crop (lifespan 25-28 years) there is low impact from annual cultivation and the need for fertilizer, pesticides and water are reduced. Oil palm plantations can sequester carbon;
  • Can alleviate poverty - palm oil production represents 4.5% of Indonesian gross domestic product, with 40% of Indonesian production coming from smallholders.

WWF Palm Oil Buyers' Scorecard 2013

What does WWF's latest assessment of palm oil buyers reveal about progress toward certified sustainable palm oil? 

Find out ► 
  •  / ©: RSPO
    The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) transforms markets to make sustainable palm oil the norm. rspo.org

Priority Countries

  • Production
    Indonesia and Malaysia (approximately 85% of global production), Congo Basin (emerging)

    India, Indonesia, China (the three largest and fastest growing markets in the last decade), EU


  • Demand drivers
    Population, income, consumption, urbanisation (associated with less time to prepare food).

    Future focus for success
    Palm oil plantation expansion will occur in Kaliminatan and Papua (Indonesia), Sarawak (Malaysia), and Papua New Guinea. Prospects for palm oil development in Africa (especially originating from China and Southeast Asia) and Latin America.

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