Six Honest Serving Men – a rapid appraisal of three sustainability standards for oil palm estates

Six Honest Serving Men – a rapid appraisal of three sustainability standards for oil palm estates

Today, numerous TPC initiatives are active in verifying the sustainable management of natural resources. Commodities now verified against sustainable management standards include coffee (Mutersbaugh 2002 & Philpott et al. 2007), high conservation values (HCV; Carlson et al. 2018 & Edwards & Laurance 2012), organic farming (Blackman and Naranjo 2012 & González and Nigh 2005), rubber (Gouyon 2003 & Kennedy et al. 2016), and soybean (VanWey and Richards 2013 & Stewart 2007). This proliferation of initiatives indicates serious and diverse interests in the business of natural resource certification.

Many tried to compare various standards and somehow rank them along a scale. One popular approach is a desktop document review of the institutional settings and other elements of certification initiatives (e.g. 3KEEL & LMC International 2017, Efeca 2015, IUCN National Committee of The Netherlands 2019, Muhtaman & Prasetyo 2004, Wibowo et al 2018 and Yaap & Paoli 2014). This approach obviously discriminates against less established (often national) initiatives, as they have fewer means for slick translations. It also ignores one crucial practicality of these standards: the conformity assessment (hereafter audit) of requirements. Any ranking based on an approach that ignores the actual practices has little value other than bragging rights, often short-lived due to yet another ranking by yet another consultant.

The many quirks in audit practices, the indicators and their contexts require a paradigm shift to move beyond temporary bragging rights, and objectively assess the differences of national versus international and mandatory versus voluntary standards. Consequently, a quick-and-dirty approach is identified that (1) matches similar indicators in a holistic way and (2) determines the veracity of the matched indicators. This approach was applied to 3 standards for the sustainable management of oil palm estates: the Indonesian Sustainable Palm Oil (ISPO) System, the Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil Certification (MSPO) Scheme, and the International Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).

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