Claiming a brand or commodity is ‘green’ or ‘sustainable’ based on broad generalisations, unclear language or vague statements
For example having vague requirements for certification schemes like the RSPO that are easily manipulated or exploited.
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Greenwashing Tactic #3: Vagueness: Claiming a brand or commodity is green by using vague generalisations or by having vague guiding principles which are subject to corruption. We #Boycott4Wildlife #Boycottpalmoil #ResistGreenwashingTweet
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Greenwashing: Vagueness in Language
Vagueness in language: ‘Complex problems require complex solutions’
Greenwashing: Vagueness in standards
A series of vague guiding principles govern members in the RSPO
This deliberately vague language makes it easier to exploit loopholes or ways of bending the rules to suit specific scenarios.
Reality: Auditing Failure
The RSPO fails to audit its own members adequately or to uphold their own vague and ill-defined voluntary standards, 17 years after the RSPO began
Reports, peer-reviewed research, OSINT, investigative journalism and books below from the past two decades have shown how the RSPO has failed to hold its members to account for human rights abuses, illegal indigenous landgrabbing, ecocide, violence and death, extinction, slavery and rape on certified sustainable palm oil plantations.
“Non-adherence to the RSPO’s standards is systemic and widespread, and has led to ongoing land conflicts, labour abuses and destruction of forests.
“As the world approaches 2020 targets to halt deforestation, the RSPO needs to rapidly implement radical solutions to restore its credibility. We question whether the RSPO is willing and able to rectify its systemic failures – ultimately, voluntary certification is too limited by its voluntary nature.”
“Implementation of [the RSPO’s] standards is often weak, with serious audit failures being reported, many members failing to meet the full range of membership requirements and grievances slow to be addressed.”
“Without assurance mechanisms that properly function, the RSPO has little credibility and its claims are hollow.
“RSPO companies have continued to be beset
by assurance issues in 2020. Associated Press notably reported on labour violations in Malaysia, including by RSPO members. These allegations included forced labour, the abuse of women and child labour, among others.”
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.
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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