Many stakeholders, including governments, production and processing companies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), are working towards a more sustainable palm oil sector. Although smallholders account for an important share of oil palm cultivation, the social and environmental challenges of smallholder practices receive relatively little attention.
Financial Service Providers (FSPs), such as banks and pension funds, could play a more significant role developing a more sustainable and inclusive palm oil sector by tying Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) conditions to the financial services they provide to palm oil companies that source products from smallholders.
The majority of funds financing the major palm oil companies originate from FSPs based in Asian countries such as Japan, Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore. Currently, these FSPs do not have adequate ESG policies.
European and American FSP policies are more advanced in addressing such issues as deforestation and Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) certification. Nevertheless, they still pay very little attention to the inclusion of smallholders in sustainable supply chains.
Due to the differences between ESG policies followed by European and American FSPs in comparison to Asian FSPs, palm oil companies still have ample alternatives to access financing with few conditions. As a result, the potentially significant contribution of FSPs to foster a more sustainable palm oil sector remains underutilized.
Adoption of more adequate ESG policies by Asian FSPs could occur in the first place through an increased understanding by these FSPs of the financial risks involved in continuing business as usual. Second, peer pressure from European and American FSPs and sustainability initiatives would help. Third, financial regulators in the palm oil production countries increasingly look for instruments to stimulate the financial sector to contribute more to the sustainable development of their economies.