Engaging for sustainable palm oil

Engaging for sustainable palm oil

03-10-2016 | Research

Palm oil is used in many products including food and cosmetics. It is faced with several environmental and social issues that have become a reputational risk. We are engaging with companies in this industry to improve their performance on issues such as human rights, deforestation and labor standards.

  • Peter van der Werf
    van der Werf
    Engagement Specialist

Speed read

  • Palm oil companies face environmental and social issues
  • This can expose investors to financial and reputational risks
  • We are engaging with several companies in this industry

Palm oil is an edible oil, which yields more oil per hectare of land than any other crop and is therefore more profitable. It accounts for almost 30% of the total edible oil market. In the last years, production and demand have increased dramatically, bringing economic prosperity to the countries producing and trading it, especially Indonesia and Malaysia. The two countries together account for around 85% to 90% of global palm oil production.

Stay informed on our latest insights with monthly mail updates
Stay informed on our latest insights with monthly mail updates

Issues in palm oil cultivation

Growth in palm oil production is challenged by significant environmental and social issues that have become a reputational risk and potentially undermine the industry’s growth model. The main risks are deforestation, fire and haze and human rights.


According to the World Wildlife Fund, an area the size of 300 football fields of rainforest is cleared each hour to make way for palm oil production. This has an indirect impact in the shape of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions as the removal of forest releases carbon into the atmosphere. Also, the removal of acres of rainforest threatens biodiversity, along with the habitat of species such as the orangutan.

Fire and haze

Peat is soil that contains more than 65% of organic matter. Peatland degradation starts with clearing and draining, often through burning. Once started, fires can burn three to four meters underground, continuing for months or even years. Fire and the resulting haze are common in Indonesia. In 2015, haze was declared an emergency in multiple provinces, causing more than half a million cases of acute respiratory illness.

Human rights When huge areas of forests are cleared, local communities are displaced without consent. Land grabbing is common in palm oil plantations, which poses huge reputational risks for the companies down the value chain. The palm oil industry has been linked to major human rights violations, including child labor and poor working conditions.

When environmental and social risks are not managed properly, they may result in financial and reputational risk for investors. For example, violation of regulations regarding palm oil cultivation could lead to suspension of the certification status of a plantation, with a loss of the certification premium as a result. Similarly, conflicts with local communities and laborers could lead to industrial stoppages and operating losses. Pressure from NGOs may also cost the company’s license to operate and result in  loss of clients.


We identified companies such as traders, processors, food producers and retailers. We believe together these companies can influence various parts of the chain to deliver and use more sustainable palm oil. We started our engagement on this topic in 2014 and we are now mid-way. We set five objectives for the companies in our engagement:
  1. Respect human rights
  2. Enforce better Labor conditions at suppliers
  3. Implement Sustainable agricultural practices
  4. Pay living wages rather than minimum wages
  5. Support capacity building of small farmers (smallholders)

Highlights of our engagement

During the last few years, we have seen the largest traders and processors develop palm oil policies to ensure palm oil is not derived from any form of exploitation.

Traceability is becoming increasingly important for companies. Companies that cannot trace back to the source of their products may increasingly find that access to market is closed for them or that they have less favorable pricing terms. Buyers like Carrefour are actively encouraging their palm oil suppliers to work with a separate supply chain for sustainable palm oil.

Nestlé sources 50% of its palm oil from smallholders, for Wilmar this is 40%. Olam has committed to an ambitious plan to develop 30,000 hectares for smallholder palm oil production in Gabon.

ADM has achieved around 92% mill traceability until the third quarter of 2015. Golden Agri Resources (GAR) has mapped the supply chain to the mill level and aims for full 100% traceability by end of 2017. Bunge achieved 67% traceability back to the mill at the end of 2015. While we value traceability advancements, we will continue to ask for further traceability back to the fields, which is an even more daunting task.


As most companies under engagement have shown commitment to sustainability in their palm oil sourcing and have established a palm oil policy, the next step for them is to track and monitor progress. Companies like GAR, Wilmar, ADM, and Bunge have also gone a step further by updating stakeholders on their progress through regular communication on their website. We believe that the industry needs to progress on these lines.

We will continue to engage with the largest growers. As they are at the start of the value chain and most exposed to the risks on the ground, we urge them to ensure that no more land is cleared nor peat is drained and food security is addressed by adopting better agricultural practices like improving yield, water management, and pest control methods. Ensuring land rights are being respected is also important to ensure the license to operate.

We will endorse improving traceability and certification systems for processors and traders to increase customer confidence in exploitation-free palm oil. We will push for better supply chain management systems at the processors in order to set clear expectations to the growers and refiners on the sustainability aspects of palm oil. 

Despite the important progress made, there is a long way to go. We continue to engage to ensure that the much needed industry transformation continues. This would lead to a sustainable palm oil trade that benefits the companies, investors and society at large.

Leave your details and download the report

This report is not available for users from countries where the offering of foreign financial services is not permitted, such as US citizens and residents.

Important legal information

The content displayed on this website is exclusively directed at qualified investors, as defined in the swiss collective investment schemes act of 23 june 2006 ("cisa") and its implementing ordinance, or at “independent asset managers” which meet additional requirements as set out below. Qualified investors are in particular regulated financial intermediaries such as banks, securities dealers, fund management companies and asset managers of collective investment schemes and central banks, regulated insurance companies, public entities and retirement benefits institutions with professional treasury or companies with professional treasury.

The contents, however, are not intended for non-qualified investors. By clicking "I agree" below, you confirm and acknowledge that you act in your capacity as qualified investor pursuant to CISA or as an “independent asset manager” who meets the additional requirements set out hereafter. In the event that you are an "independent asset manager" who meets all the requirements set out in Art. 3 para. 2 let. c) CISA in conjunction with Art. 3 CISO, by clicking "I Agree" below you confirm that you will use the content of this website only for those of your clients which are qualified investors pursuant to CISA.

Representative in Switzerland of the foreign funds registered with the Swiss Financial Market Supervisory Authority ("FINMA") for distribution in or from Switzerland to non-qualified investors is Robeco Switzerland AG, Josefstrasse 218, 8005 Zürich, and the paying agent is UBS Switzerland AG, Bahnhofstrasse 45, 8001 Zürich. Please consult for a list of FINMA registered funds.

Neither information nor any opinion expressed on the website constitutes a solicitation, an offer or a recommendation to buy, sell or dispose of any investment, to engage in any other transaction or to provide any investment advice or service. An investment in a Robeco/Robeco Switzerland product should only be made after reading the related legal documents such as management regulations, articles of association, prospectuses, key investor information documents and annual and semi-annual reports, which can be all be obtained free of charge at this website, at the registered seat of the representative in Switzerland, as well as at the Robeco/Robeco Switzerland offices in each country where Robeco has a presence. In respect of the funds distributed in Switzerland, the place of performance and jurisdiction is the registered office of the representative in Switzerland.

This website is not directed to any person in any jurisdiction where, by reason of that person's nationality, residence or otherwise, the publication or availability of this website is prohibited. Persons in respect of whom such prohibitions apply must not access this website.

I Disagree