The UK’s proposal on due diligence for imported commodities has sparked a debate about where legality and sustainability cross over.

For many Western importing nations, the legality of a product is not enough; sustainability is the more important measure. But definitions of what constitutes sustainability differ wildly depending on the inherent bias or experience of different individuals and their value set, the media, government institutions and the politics of the country setting the rules. 

For many European politicians, commodities should be deforestation free, without question. For an Indonesian smallholder farmer, producing food for subsistence and for sale to local and international markets may require local deforestation.

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals were reached on a consensus basis in order to give all countries flexibility to determine their targets and their progress. This is needed; sometimes there are trade-offs between increasing food production and reducing deforestation, for example.

This is why a conversation about Legality Standards is welcome in the UK’s proposal on due diligence. Because of the difficulties finding widely-agreed parameters for ‘sustainability’, a standard based on legality is the best place to find common ground. It allows for the right balance the members of the UN were looking to achieve with the SDGs: supporting environmental stewardship while ensuring sustainable economic growth, wealth creation and alleviation of poverty in the developing world.

Indonesia’s current ISPO standards contribute positively to multiple SDGs. They are currently being updated, with revisions expected in the coming weeks. It is a good example of how a Legality Standard can ensure the goals of the UN’s SDGs are achieved, and that all stakeholders can feel the legality approach is a step forward for their objectives.

This overview mostly looks at the integrated plantation and processing standard, unless otherwise noted.

SDG 1. No Poverty. It goes without saying that oil palm cultivation has lifted millions of Indonesian smallholders out of poverty. But in the standard itself, ISPO principles requires plantation operators to introduce economic empowerment programs for surrounding communities and develop business partnerships within the local community (6.1).

SDG 2. Zero Hunger. The key targets in SDG 2 include ensuring access to safe, nutritious and sufficient food all year round. Palm oil’s efficiency, lower inputs and higher yields – and its ability to grow easily in the world’s poorer countries – contributes to this goal. One of the key targets in SDG 2 is improving agricultural productivity, and this is addressed directly by the standard. It stipulates that certain practices – such as using superior seeds, good agricultural practices and technical standards for planting – be followed.

SDG 3. Health and Well Being. The ISPO Standard requires that operators perform regular health checks on all employees (5.1), health clinic facilities are provided for workers (5.2), and also requires that all occupational health and safety requirements under Indonesian regulations be followed (2.1).

SDG 4. Education. The ISPO Standard requires that – among other things – educational facilities are provided for plantation workers (5.2), and that community programs incorporate an education (6.1).

SDG 5. Gender Equality. Companies are required under the ISPO Standard to implement policies that provide equal opportunity with no discrimination based on gender (5.3).

SDG 6. Sustainable Water Use. Companies are required under the ISPO Standard to mitigate any negative impacts that might impact other water users, operate a waste water treatment plant as required (4.1), monitor and manage all water sources 4.7).

SDG 7. Sustainable Energy. The use of palm-based biodiesel as a renewable source of energy is self evident, as it is for other crops. However, the ISPO Standard goes further and also requires that where possible, biomass replaces fossil fuels where possible (4.10).

SDG 8. Decent Work. As with poverty reduction, the palm oil sector provides employment for millions across Indonesia. In addition, the ISPO Standard has specific prohibitions on the use of child labour (5.3), and has specific provisions to provide access to the formation of trade unions and labour representation (5.4).

SDG 10. Reduced Inequalities: The ISPO Standard also contains additional standards specifically set out for plasma (i.e. contracted smallholder) farmers and independent farmers. In other words, the ISPO sustainability standards are extremely inclusive, including for poorer smallholder groups.

SDG 12. Sustainable Production and Consumption. The ISPO Standard, like other sustainability certifications is oriented towards this goal overall. However, ISPO contains provisions on some of the main indicators within this SDG, including management of chemicals for pest control (2.2), and waste management (2.2).

SDG 13. Climate Action. Plantation companies are required to carry out a GHG inventory and mitigate any emissions where possible under the ISPO Standard. (4.10).

SDG 15. Life on Land. Plantation companies must comply with all legal requirements as part of ISPO certification; this includes the Presidential Moratorium on new plantation areas within primary forests and following rules on conservation areas at all governmental levels (3.1), and conservation of biodiversity (4.6). In addition, an environmental impact assessment must be carried out by all companies (2.2).

SDG 17. Promoting Partnerships. ISPO Standard has engaged in partnerships and collaborations with UNDP, ILO, IFC, CPOPC, as well as a number of other international NGOs including RSPO, IDH, TFT and Conservation International.

The Indonesian Government has been very clear that ISPO is the sustainability – and legality – framework for Indonesian palm oil. For Indonesian sovereignty to be respected, ISPO must be recognised as the legality standard for palm oil. The updated standards will underline that further.

And in the view of Indonesia, the UN’s SDGs are a crucial element for determining common sustainability goals, including for Western governments drawing up new rules. The SDGs – like their predecessors in the Millennium Development Goals – have taken years to develop. They are not perfect, but they are the closest the world has to a framework that will bring together governments, businesses, smallholder farmers, Western multinationals and NGOs. ISPO, and the Indonesian Government and palm oil sector are committed to supporting and advancing the SDGs, and others who legislate on palm oil or commodities exports must ensure they are likewise committed to these essential goals.