Claiming a brand, commodity or industry is green based on irrelevant information
Irrelevance and Deflection
A common greenwashing tactic is to shift the conversation towards an irrelevant issue that deflects from the environmental issue at hand
#Greenwashing Tactic #5: Irrelevance and Deflection: A common greenwashing tactic is to shift the conversation away from criticising sustainable #palmoil towards an irrelevant topic #Boycott4Wildlife #Boycottpalmoil #FightgreenwashingTweet
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Reality: Global Witness report links supermarket brands (RSPO members) to palm oil plantation deaths
Greenwashing: Irrelevant Topics
Palm oil lobbyists steer people’s online conversations away from criticising sustainable palm oil or calling for a boycott of palm oil, towards other topics that are irrelevant
RSPO Lobbyists such as Bart Van Assen, Michelle Desilets and Jane Griffiths of Orangutan Land Trust often combine this tactic with abuse and harassment. This is done to intimidate individuals and stop them spreading awareness about the corruption of so-called ‘sustainable’ palm oil.
Greenwashing: Colonial Racism
Palm oil lobbyists divert consumers’ attention away from exposing the corruption of ‘sustainable’ palm oil.
They do this by claiming that people from wealthy nations want to halt the growth of palm oil in developing nations and that this is unfair and a form of ‘colonial racism’
The gist of this argument is:
‘Europeans have destroyed their forests for agriculture, so why can’t we do the same in the tropics? Stopping our economic development is hypocrisy and colonialism’
Research analysing media and social media messages around palm oil in Malaysia and Indonesia finds that palm oil lobbyists use an ‘Us’ Versus ‘Them’ narrative, in other words, they invoke colonial racism.
Four mutually complementary narratives were used by Indonesian and Malaysian media to construe denialism, which closely resemble the four climate denialist narratives identified by Elsasser and Dunlap (2013). These denialist narratives draw heavily upon information advocated by divergent knowledge communities (Goldstein 2016) and appeal to a nationalist sentiment of ‘us’ – palm oil-producing developing countries – and ‘them’ – western developed countries producing research critical of the industry.Liu, Felicia & Ganesan, Vignaa & Smith, Thomas. (2020). Contrasting communications of sustainability science in the media coverage of palm oil agriculture on tropical peatlands in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. Environmental Science & Policy. 114. 162-169. 10.1016/j.envsci.2020.07.004.
We had the luck to be born into a developed country, I believe we need to acknowledge the right of lesser-developed countries to develop. We simply have no right to tell a country like Indonesia to forgo economic development, but we can help to steer that development in a sustainable direction.Michelle Desilets, Director, Orangutan Land Trust. The Switch Report, 2014
RSPO palm oil certification has not improved worker’s incomes and has not stopped human rights abuses, violence, slavery or illegal indigenous land-grabbing, since the RSPO’s inception 17 years ago
Global Witness October 2021 Report: Violence and death for palm oil connected to household supermarket brands (RSPO members)
“One palm oil firm, Rimbunan Hijau, [Papua New Guinea] negligently ignored repeated and avoidable worker deaths and injuries on palm oil plantations, with at least 11 workers and the child of one worker losing their lives over an eight-year period.
“Tainted palm oil from Papua New Guinea plantations was sold to household name brands, all of them RSPO members including Kellogg’s, Nestlé, Colgate, Danone, Hershey’s and PZ Cussons and Reckitt Benckiser”
RSPO: 14 years of failure to eliminate violence and destruction from the industrial palm oil sector
Friends of the Earth and 100 other human rights and environmental NGOS co-signed this letter in 2018
During its 14 years of existence, RSPO – the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil – has failed to live up to its claim of “transforming” the industrial palm oil production sector into a so-called “sustainable” one. In reality, the RSPO has been used by the palm oil industry to greenwash corporate destruction and human rights abuses, while it continues to expand business, forest destruction and profits.
RSPO presents itself to the public with the slogan “transforming the markets to make sustainable palm oil the norm”. Palm oil has become the cheapest vegetable oil available on the global market, making it a popular choice among the group that dominates RSPO membership, big palm oil buyers.
They will do everything to secure a steady flow of cheap palm oil. They also know that the key to the corporate success story of producing “cheap” palm oil is a particular model of industrial production, with ever-increasing efficiency and productivity which in turn is achieved by:
- Planting on a large-scale and in monoculture, frequently through conversion of tropical biodiverse forests
- Using “high yielding” seedlings that demand large amounts of agrotoxics and abundant water.
- Squeezing cheap labour out of the smallest possible work force, employed in precarious conditions so that company costs are cut to a minimum
- Making significant up-front money from the tropical timber extracted from concessions, which is then used to finance plantation development or increase corporate profits.
- Grabbing land violently from local communities or by means of other arrangements with governments (including favourable tax regimes) to access land at the lowest possible cost.
Those living on the fertile land that the corporations choose to apply their industrial palm oil production model, pay a very high price.
Violence is intrinsic to this model:
- violence and repression when communities resist the corporate take over of their land because they know that once their land is turned into monoculture oil palm plantations, their livelihoods will be destroyed, their land and forests invaded. In countless cases, deforestation caused by the expansion of this industry, has displaced communities or destroyed community livelihoods where
- companies violate customary rights and take control of community land;
- sexual violence and harassment against women in and around the plantations which often stays invisible because women find themselves without possibilities to demand that the perpetrators be prosecuted;
- Child labour and precarious working conditions that go hand-in-hand with violation of workers’ rights;
- working conditions can even be so bad as to amount to contemporary forms of slavery. This exploitative model of work grants companies more economic profits while allowing palm oil to remain a cheap product. That is why, neither them or their shareholders do anything to stop it.
- exposure of workers, entire communities and forests, rivers, water springs, agricultural land and soils to the excessive application of agrotoxics;
- depriving communities surrounded by industrial oil palm plantations of their food sovereignty when industrial oil palm plantations occupy land that communities need to grow food crops.
RSPO’s proclaimed vision of transforming the industrial oil palm sector is doomed to fail because the Roundtable’s certification principles promote this structural violent and destructive model.
The RSPO also fails to address the industry’s reliance on exclusive control of large and contingent areas of fertile land, as well as the industry’s growth paradigm which demands a continued expansion of corporate control over community land and violent land grabs.
None of RPSO’s eight certification principles suggests transforming this industry reliance on exclusive control over vast areas of land or the growth paradigm inherent to the model.
Industrial use of vegetable oils has doubled in the past 15 years, with palm oil being the cheapest. This massive increase of palm oil use in part explains the current expansion of industrial oil palm plantations, especially in Africa and Latin America, from the year 2000 onward, in addition to the existing vast plantations areas in Malaysia and Indonesia that also continue expanding.
On the ground, countless examples show that industrial oil palm plantations continue to be synonymous to violence and destruction for communities and forests. Communities’ experiences in the new industrial oil palm plantation frontiers, such as Gabon, Nigeria, Cameroon, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Peru, Honduras, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, are similar to past and ongoing community experiences in Indonesia and Malaysia.
For example, in its public propaganda, RSPO claims it supports more than 100,000 small holders. But the profit from palm oil production is still disproportionally appropriated by the oil palm companies: in 2016, 88% of all certified palm oil came from corporate plantations and 99,6% of the production is corporate-controlled.
RSPO also claims that the principle of Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) is key among its own Principles and Criteria. The right to FPIC implies, among others, that if a community denies the establishment of this monoculture in its territory, operations cannot be carried out. Reality shows us, however, that despite this, many projects go ahead.
Concessions are often guaranteed long before the company reaches out to the affected communities. Under these circumstances, to say that FPIC is central to RSPO is bluntly false and disrespectful.
RSPO also argues that where conflicts with the plantation companies arise, communities can always use its complaint mechanism. However, the mechanism is complex and it rarely solves the problems that communities face and want to resolve.
This becomes particularly apparent in relation to land legacy conflicts where the mechanism is biased against communities. It allows companies to continue exploiting community land until courts have come to a decision. This approach encourages companies to sit out such conflicts and count on court proceedings dragging on, often over decades.
Another argument used by RSPO is that industrial oil palm plantations have lifted millions of people out of poverty. That claim is certainly questionable, even more so considering that there is also an important number of people who have been displaced over the past decades to make space for plantations.
Indigenous communities have in fact lost their fertile land, forests and rivers to oil palm plantations, adversely affecting their food, culture and local economies.
The RSPO promise of “transformation” has turned into a powerful greenwashing tool for corporations in the palm oil industry. RSPO grants this industry, which remains responsible for violent land grabbing, environmental destruction, pollution through excessive use of agrotoxics and destruction of peasant and indigenous livelihoods, a “sustainable” image.
What’s more, RSPO membership seems to suffice for investors and companies to be able to claim that they are “responsible” actors. This greenwash is particularly stunning, since being a member does not guarantee much change on the ground. Only recently, a company became RSPO member after it was found to deforest over 27.000 hectares of rainforest in Papua, Indonesia.
Certification is structurally dependent on the very same policies and regulation that have given rise to the host of environmental devastation and community land rights violations associated with oil palm plantations. These systemic governance issues are part of the destructive economic model, and embedded in state power.
For this reason, voluntary certification schemes cannot provide adequate protection for forests, community rights, food sovereignty and guarantee sustainability. Governments and financiers need to take responsibility to stop the destructive palm oil expansion that violates the rights of local communities and Indigenous Peoples.
As immediate steps, governments need to:
- Put in place a moratorium on palm oil plantations expansion and use that as a breathing space to fix the policy frameworks;
- Drastically reduce demand for palm oil: stop using food for fuel;
- Strengthen and respect the rights of local communities and Indigenous Peoples to amongst others, self-determination and territorial control.
- Promote agro-ecology and community control of their forests, which strengthens local incomes, livelihoods and food sovereignty, instead of advancing industrial agro-businesses.
- Aalamaram-NGOAcción Ecológica, Ecuador
- ActionAid, France
- Arbres amics
- Amis de la Terre France
- ARAARBA (Asociación para la Recuperación del Bosque Autóctono)
- Asociación Conservacionista YISKI, Costa Rica
Asociación Gaia El Salvador
- Association Congo Actif, Paris
- Association Les Gens du Partage, Carrières-sous-Poissy
- Association pour le développement des aires protégées, Swizterland
- BASE IS
- Bézu St Eloi
- Boxberg OT Uhyst
- Bread for all
- Bruno Manser Fund
- CADDECAE, Ecuador
- Campaign to STOP GE Trees
- CAP, Center for Advocacy Practices
- Centar za životnu sredinu/ Friends of the Earth Bosnia and Herzegovina
- CESTA – FOE El Salvador
- CETRI – Centre tricontinental
- Climate Change Kenya
- Coalición de Tendencia Clasista. (CTC-VZLA)
- Colectivo de Investigación y Acompañmiento Comunitario
- Collectif pour la défense des terres malgaches – TANY, Madagascar
- Community Forest Watch, Nigeria
- Consumers Association of Penang
- Corporate Europe Observatory
- Cuttington University
- Down to Earth Consult
- El Campello
- Environmental Resources Management and Social Issue Centre (ERMSIC) Cameroon
- Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria
- FASE ES , Brazil
- Fédération romande des consommateurs
- FENEV, (Femmes Environnement nature Entrepreneuriat Vert).
- Focus on the Global South
- Forum Ökologie & Papier, Germany
- Friends of the Earth Ghana
- Friends of the Earth International
- GE Free NZ, New Zealand
- Global Alliance against REDD
- Global Justice Ecology Project
- Global Info
- Gobierno Territorial Autónomo de la Nación Wampís , Peru
- Green Development Advocates (GDA)
- CameroonGreystones, Ireland
- Groupe International de Travail pour les Peuples Autochtones
- Grupo Guayubira, Uruguay
- Instituto Mexicano de Gobernanza Medioambiental AC Instituto Mexicano de Gobernanza Medioambiental AC
- Integrated Program for the Development of the Pygmy People (PIDP), DRC
- Justica Ambiental
- Justicia Paz e Integridad de la Creacion. Costa Rica
- Latin Ambiente, http://www.latinambiente.org
- Les gens du partage
- LOYOLA SCHOOL OF THEOLOGY, MANILA
- Maderas del Pueblo del Sureste, AC
- Maiouri nature, Guyane
- Mangrove Action Project
- Milieudefensie – Friends of the Earth Netherlands
- Movimento Amigos da Rua Gonçalo de Carvalho
- Muyissi Environnement, Gabon
- Nature-d-congo de la République du Congo
- New Wind Association from Finland
- NOAH-Friends of the Earth Denmark
- Oakland Institute
- OFRANEH, Honduras
- Ole Siosiomaga Society Incorporated (OLSSI)
- ONG OCEAN : Organisation Congolaise des Ecologistes et Amis de la Nature et sommes basés en RD Congo.
- OPIROMA, Brazil
- Otros Mundos A.C./Amigos de la Tierra México
- Paramo Guerrrero Zipaquira
- PROYECTO GRAN SIMIO (GAP/PGS-España)
- Quercus – ANCN, Portugal
- Radd (Reseau des Acteurs du Développement Durable) , Cameroon
- Rainforest Foundation UK
- Rainforest Relief
- ReAct – Alliances Transnationales
- RECOMA – Red latinoamericana contra los monocultivos de árboles
- Red de Coordinacion en Biodiversidad , Çosta Rica
- REFEB-Cote d’Ivoire
- Rettet den Regenwald, Germany
- ROBIN WOOD
- Sahabat Alam Malaysia (Friends of the Earth Malaysia)
- Salva la Selva
- School of Democratic Economics, Indonesia
- Serendipalm Company Limited
- Sherpa , The Netherlands
- SYNAPARCAM, Cameroon
- The Corner House, UK
Towards Equitable Sustainable Holistic Development
- TRAFFED KIVU ,RD. CONGOUNIÓN UNIVERSAL DESARROLLO SOLIDARIO
University of Sussex, UK
- UTB ColombiaWatch Indonesia!
World Rainforest Movement
- Youth Volunteers for the Environment Ghana
We find positive effects on prices and income from sale of certified products. However, we find no change in overall household income and assets for workers. The wages for workers are not higher in certified production.Oya, C., Schaefer, F. & Skalidou, D. The effectiveness of agricultural certification in developing countries: a systematic review. World Dev. 112, 282–312 (2018).
We find that, while sustainability standards can help improve the sustainability of production processes in certain situations, they are insufficient to ensure food system sustainability at scale, nor do they advance equity objectives in agrifood supply chains.Meemken, EM., Barrett, C.B., Michelson, H.C. et al. Sustainability standards in global agrifood supply chains. Nat Food (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s43016-021-00360-3
Explore the series
Further reading on palm oil, greenwashing and deceptive marketing
A Brief History of Consumer Culture, Dr Kerryn Higgs, The MIT Press Reader.
A Deluge of Double-Speak (2017), Jason Bagley. Truth in Advertising.
Anti-Corporate Activism and Collusion: The Contentious Politics of Palm Oil Expansion in Indonesia, (2022). Ward Berenschot, et. al., Geoforum, Volume 131, 2022, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.geoforum.2022.03.002
Balanced Growth (2020), In: Leal Filho W., Azul A.M., Brandli L., özuyar P.G., Wall T. (eds)Responsible Consumption and Production. Encyclopedia of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Springer, Cham.
Contrasting communications of sustainability science in the media coverage of palm oil agriculture on tropical peatlands in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, (2020), Felicia H M Liu, Vignaa Ganesan, Thomas E L Smith, Environmental Science & Policy, Volume 114, 2020.
Commodifying sustainability: Development, nature and politics in the palm oil industry (2019) World Development
Volume 121, September 2019, Pages 218-228
Earth Day 2021: Companies Accused of Greenwashing (2021), Truth in Advertising.
Effect of oil palm sustainability certification on deforestation and fire in Indonesia, (2018), Kimberly M. Carlson, Robert Heilmayr, Holly K. Gibbs, Praveen Noojipady et al. PNAS January 2, 2018 115 (1) 121-126
Fifteen environmental NGOs demand that sustainable palm oil watchdog does its job, (2019), Media release. Rainforest Action Network.
‘Gibt es nachhaltiges Palmöl? Satellitenbilder zeigen: Auch auf zertifizierten Plantagen brennt es immer wieder’, (2021), Adina Renner, Conradin Zellweger, Barnaby Skinner, Neue Zürcher Zeitung.
Green Clean, (2021), Cathy Armour (Commissioner, Australian Securities & Investments Commission). Company Director Magazine.
Greenwash and spin: palm oil lobby targets its critics, (2011), Alex Helan. Ecologist: Informed by Nature.
Group Challenges Rainforest Alliance Earth-Friendly Seal of Approval, (2015), Truth in Advertising.
Green marketing and the Australian Consumer Law, (2011), Australian Competition and Consumer Commission.
Greenwashing of the Palm Oil Industry, (2007), Mongabay
Greenwashing: The Darker Side Of CSR, (2011), Priyanka Aggarwal, Shri Ram College of Commerce (University of Delhi). Indian Journal of Applied Research 4(3):61-66 DOI:10.15373/2249555X/MAR2014/20
How Cause-washing Deceives Consumers, (2021), Truth in Advertising
‘Is there such a thing as sustainable palm oil? Satellite images show protected rainforest on fire’, (2021), Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Adina Renner, Conradin Zellweger, Barnaby Skinner.
Kellogg on Branding in a Hyper-Connected World, (2019), Alice M. Tybout (Editor-in-Chief), Tim Calkins (Editor-in-Chief), Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University.
No such thing as sustainable palm oil – ‘certified’ can destroy even more wildlife, say scientists, (2018), Jane Dalton. The Independent.
Palm oil watchdog’s sustainability guarantee is still a destructive con, (2019), Environmental Investigation Agency.
Plantation Life: Corporate Occupation in Indonesia’s Oil Palm Zone. Tania Murray Li, Pujo Semedi, (2021), Duke University Press.
Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil is ‘greenwashing’ labelled products, environmental investigation agency says, (2019), Annette Gartland. Changing Times Media.
RSPO: 14 years of failure to eliminate violence and destruction from the industrial palm oil sector, (2018), Friends of the Earth International.
Sustainable palm oil may not be so sustainable, (2018) , Roberto Cazzolla Gatti, Jingjing Liang, Alena Velichevskaya, Mo Zhou, Science of The Total Environment, Volume 652, 2019, Pages 48-51, ISSN 0048-9697.
Sustainable palm oil or certified dispossession? NGOs within scalar struggles over the RSPO private governance standard (2019): Working Paper No. 8,
Bioeconomy & Inequalities; Wicke, Janis.
Sustainable palm oil? RSPO’s greenwashing and fraudulent audits exposed, (2015) Ecologist: Informed by Nature.
Sustainable Palm Oil? Who Knows, Thanks to Derelict Auditors, (2015), Kirby, David, Take Part.
Sustainability standards in global agrifood supply chains, (2021), Meemken, EM., Barrett, C.B., Michelson, H.C. et al. Nat Food
Study in WHO journal likens palm oil lobbying to tobacco and alcohol industries, (2019), Tom Miles. Reuters
The palm oil industry and noncommunicable diseases, (2019), Sowmya Kadandale, a Robert Martenb & Richard Smith. World Health Organisation Bulletin
The palm oil industry and noncommunicable diseases, (2019), Sowmya Kadandale, a Robert Martenb & Richard Smith. World Health Organisation Bulletin 2019;97:118–128|
The Time Has Come to Rein In the Global Scourge of Palm Oil, (2021), Jocelyn Zuckerman. Yale Environment 360, Yale School of Environment.
Truth in Advertising: Green Guides and Environmentally Friendly Products, Federal Trade Commission: Protecting America’s Consumers.
‘What do Millennials think of palm oil? Nestlé investigates’, (2021), Flora Southey. Food Navigator.
What is Greenwashing and How to Tell Which Companies are Truly Environmentally Responsible, (2021), Hewlett Packard.
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