Greenwashing Tactic #4: Fake Labels

10 Tactics of Sustainable Palm Oil Greenwashing Tactic 4 Fake Labels

Claiming a brand or commodity is green based on unreliable, ineffective endorsements or eco-labels such as the RSPO, Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) or FairTrade coffee and cocoa.

10 Tactics of Sustainable Palm Oil Greenwashing Tactic 4 Fake Labels

Fake Labels

Most certifications and eco-lavels add a ‘green sheen’ to brands. Yet according to Greenpeace – even the most respected certifications in the world rarely have a positive environmental and social impact

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Greenwashing Tactic #4: Fake Labels: Claiming a brand or commodity is green by using fake certifications such as @RSPOtweets that does not stop #deforestation #landgrabbing We #Boycottpalmoil Boycott4Wildlife #FightGreenwashing

Greenwashing: Fake Labels and fake certifications

Ecolabels are designed to reassure consumers that they are purchasing green or sustainable products.

In reality the environmental standards are no better than for non-certified goods.

Original tweet

Reality: Eco-labels do not:

Stop deforestation

Stop human rights abuses

Stop indigenous landgrabbing

Improve the livelihood of smallholder farmers

Improve biodiversity in tropical regions

Certification does not equal the definition of deforestation free.

Mark Engel, Chief Supply Chain Officer, Unilever. Greenpeace: Destruction Certified

Certification has done much to cultivate the image that ‘green’ labelled commodities are ‘sustainable’

Instead of guaranteeing that deforestation and other harms are excluded from supply chains, certification with inadequate governance, standards and/or enforcement enables destructive businesses to continue operating as usual.

More broadly, by improving the image of forest and ecosystem risk commodities and so stimulating demand, certification risks actually increasing the harm caused by the expansion of commodity production.

Instead of being an effective forest protection tool, certification schemes thus end up greenwashing products linked to deforestation, ecosystem destruction and rights abuses.

Destruction Certified, Greenpeace 2021.
Palm Oil Expansion and Conflict in Indonesia report 2021
Destruction Certified by Greenpeace 2021

“The RSPO complaints system receives and resolves few cases. Out of 64 RSPO member companies, only 17 grievances were reported and only 3 resolved”

Lack of resolution mechanisms allow palm oil conflicts to fester in Indonesia‘, Hans Nicholas Jong, Mongabay, 29 November, 2021

Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA)

“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.”

Who Watches the Watchmen Part 2: The continuing incompetence of the RSPO’s assurance systems (2019)


Greenpeace Logo

“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.”

Destruction Certified by Greenpeace (2021)

Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA)

EIA logo

“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.”

Burning Questions – Credibility of sustainable palm oil still illusive – Environmental Investigation Agency (2021)

RSPO’s annual conference 2019: a focus on faulty audits

It was also acknowledged that the taskforce did not have the capacity to handle the responsibilities that it had set itself, and that besides training, a new model where the work was outsourced might be needed.

In ending the session, the panelists identified the most important things that would kickstart better assurance, namely: obtaining feedback to improve the assurance system, formulating better social policy, improved communications, rigour in meeting deadlines, and maintaining credible audits.

RT Report 2019
Brands using deforestation palm oil

No significant difference was found between certified and non-certified plantations for any of the sustainability metrics investigated, however positive economic trends including greater fresh fruit bunch yields were revealed. To achieve intended outcomes, RSPO principles and criteria are in need of substantial improvement and rigorous enforcement.

Evaluating the effectiveness of palm oil certification in delivering multiple sustainability objectives. (2018), Morgans, C. L. et al. Environ. Res. Lett. 13, 064032.

EIA: Burning Questions, the Credibility of Sustainable Palm Oil Still Elusive

RSPO members continue to be exposed for violations of the body’s own standard and this ongoing trend makes the RSPO’s claims of sustainability unreliable.

Eco-labels and certifications for agricultural crops have yet to halt land use change. Sparse and uneven market uptake only partially explain this outcome. Loopholes in certification standards and enforcement mechanisms also play a role.

Do eco-labels prevent deforestation? Lessons from non-state market driven governance in the soy, palm oil, and cocoa sectors., (2018) van der Ven, H., Rothacker, C. & Cashore, B. Glob. Environ. Change 52, 141–151.

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.

Sustainability standards in global agrifood supply chains., (2021) Meemken, EM., Barrett, C.B., Michelson, H.C. et al. Nat Food.

Big brand sustainability, while important, will not on its own resolve the problems of global environmental change. In conclusion, the article highlights the importance of a co-regulatory governance approach that includes stronger state regulations, sustained advocacy, more responsible individual consumerism, and tougher international legal constraints to go beyond the business gains from big brand sustainability to achieve more transformational, ‘absolute’ global environmental progress.

Big brand sustainability: governance prospects and environmental limits. (2012) Dauvergne, P. & Lister, J. Glob. Environ. Change 22, 36–45.

Product packaging cues are a means of communication to consumers. This study reflects on use and effectiveness of sustainability cues on packaging. The conversion of cue recognition to driving purchasing behavior is low.

Sustainability cues on packaging: the influence of recognition on purchasing behavior. (2019) Rees, W., Tremma, O. & Manning, L., J. Clean. Prod. 235, 841–85.

This article argues that the form of sustainability offered by certification schemes such as the RSPO fetishes the commodity palm oil in order to assuage critical consumer initiatives in the North. This technical-managerial solution is part of a larger project: the “post-political” climate politics regime (Swyngedouw) that attempts to “green” the status quo.

Commodifying sustainability: Development, nature and politics in the palm oil industry (2019) World Development
Volume 121, September 2019, Pages 218-228
  • The palm oil industry is neither sustainable nor a viable development model.
  • Certification represents a technical fix which neglects underlying dynamics of power, class, gender and accumulation.
  • The fetishised commodity ‘certified sustainable palm oil’ has no impact on the regional scale of expansion.
  • Working conditions in the plantations and mills entrench social inequality and poverty.

From: Commodifying sustainability: Development, nature and politics in the palm oil industry (2019) World Development
Volume 121, September 2019, Pages 218-228

10 Tactics of Sustainable Palm Oil Greenwashing - Summary

Explore the series

Join the #Boycott4Wildlife and fight deforestation and greenwashing by using your wallet as a weapon!

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.

Client Earth: The Greenwashing Files

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: definition and examples. Selectra

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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