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27 Apr 2021

Jiang Yifan, China Dialogue

China: Lack of consumer awareness hinders roadmap for mainstreaming sustainable palm oil, advocates argue

"Stalemate: sustainable palm oil struggles to take off in China", 27 April 2021

[...] China does not produce palm oil, but it is, after India, the world’s second-largest market for the commodity. And with the world facing dual crises of climate warming and biodiversity loss, China cannot stand apart.

For seven years, the world’s dominant sustainable palm oil certification body, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), has been trying to increase the proportion of sustainable palm oil sold in China. It had a target for 2020 of 10% of palm oil sold in China to be RSPO-certified. But the figures have fallen far short. Data from last April show the actual proportion was less than 2%. Sources in businesses, government and NGOs told China Dialogue that take-up of sustainable palm oil has been slow, as various parties are working separately, rather than pulling together, and there is no agreed-upon roadmap towards a breakthrough. However, talks on such a roadmap are underway. [...]

Yang Jiaming once worked for an international certification body, managing RSPO certification for the Asia-Pacific region. He says that sustainable palm oil advocacy in China has had some isolated successes, but there has been no pooling of efforts, so they dissipate rather than synergise. Yu Xin, project coordinator of WWF China’s Sustainable Food Consumption and Supply Chain programme who oversees the chapter’s palm oil campaign, has seen the same thing. When asked about the biggest challenge for promoting sustainable palm oil, she says: “Challenges are coming from all directions, but the core challenge is that government, the industry and consumers aren’t making coordinated moves.” [...]

Encouraging Chinese consumers to show concern for the environmental impact of products sourced from overseas could take some time, and there is little hope of a near-term impact on supply chains. A more realistic approach may be to have actors in the supply chain take the initiative. Yu Xin says: “If any particular part of a supply chain can come up with a ‘product’, then they can be linked up.” WWF China hopes to see some trials within the supply chain, with upstream and downstream firms working together on actual sustainable palm oil products, so that the more aware firms aren’t just talking about their own achievements. The organisation is also set to publish a guide to procurement of sustainable palm oil for Chinese firms, in cooperation with the CFNA. This is intended to raise awareness of the issue among downstream businesses and encourage cooperation between them on supply chain issues. [...]