13 October 2014

Challenges in sustainability - never ending journey?

I seem to always be driven into a defensive position whenever someone asks me what I do at Neste Oil. I cannot blame them, since palm oil is almost without any exceptions presented in negative light. It seems that every once in a while, there occurs a new troubling issue which is highlighted. And sometimes it seems that they never stop coming.

Despite all this, I remain optimistic. I always point out to the pessimists that we are aware about the problematic issues related to palm oil, but are there within the industry to work together with other stakeholders to make things better. Sustainability is not an end-stop goal; it’s a dynamic journey as we discover solutions to make the industry and products more sustainable. I would say that by being a significant player we have taken the opportunity to be a part of shaping an improved and more responsible industry.

Certainly a lot has been accomplished in the journey of making palm oil more sustainable if we take 2005 as a starting point - the year when RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) was formed. Today increasing amount of the production is certified and the industry is gradually opening themselves to NGOs and other critical voices. The EU Renewable Energy Directive in 2008 was the first legislation which required sustainability as mandatory aspect in the biofuel production - it also drives the certification of palm oil products and its import to EU.

Going forward together with the NGOs

NGOs remain critical. In the light of the massive campaigns against deforestation by NGOs in the 2010s - which highlighted the fact that deforestation still continued despite the certification efforts - many companies have declared their 'no-deforestation and no-exploitation commitment'. By doing so they are going beyond certification and even their obligations within local and international law. Partnering with NGOs, these companies - including Neste Oil - commit to making their supply chain deforestation-free and exploitation free. Thus NGOs play a big and important role in ensuring that sustainability is safeguarded and that certifications are not taken for granted.

When Finnwatch, a Finnish NGO that was doing a report of Finnish companies' palm oil use, approached us with a desire to visit our supplier (IOI), they and we accepted the visit as a way to gain a different perspective on the labour issues. Even though many of Finnwatch's findings were admittedly negative, they are extremely valuable for developing the industry. We have committed to follow-up the corrective actions involving ourselves, our supplier, the relevant certification bodies, and other relevant stakeholders.

Stopping purchases is not a solution - to demand continuous development is

The report was published in Helsinki, Finland, in September. In the press conference, the representative of Finnwatch, Sonja Vartiala, stated that the NGO was not calling for stopping purchases from IOI, but rather that Neste Oil should work with them to improve operations. This view is important and very welcome! As the dialogue with many local and international NGOs has shown us, the goal for us is not to cut off palm oil from our supply chain; but instead to be an inclusive and active player in the industry.

Palm oil is an important industry in Asia which needs to be developed

Asia is filled with developing countries with staggering economic growth. In Indonesia, palm oil is an important industry bringing direct benefits for the society. Even the World Bank has stated that palm oil growth could be the solution for poverty in those areas. However, sustainable development is needed. Many Asian countries realize now that bad economic and social practices eventually cause negative effects to the society such as pollution from irresponsible industries, social conflict, inequality, and even haze from forest fires covering cities and damaging health.

I personally believe our active participation as a responsible buyer in the palm industry is very essential for developing sustainable palm oil production. We have managed so far to engage with all different stakeholders within the industry (local NGOs, governments, suppliers, civil societies, associations, etc.). To date we are considered a good player and partner. We will work hard to maintain this reputation and will commit to continuously be in the sustainability journey with the important stakeholders in the industry.

Adrian R. Suharto
Sustainability Manager Neste Oil Singapore Pte Ltd