Palm oil expansion captures headlines, primarily out of concern that encroachment to tropical forest causes environmental problem and ignites social issues. Cascading ecological and social issues cause loss of trust, (threats of) consumer boycotts and multiple standards and certification responses. However, diverse sustainability issues should be taken into account within the issue-attention cycle. Most of current production (89%) occurs in SE Asia, with Indonesia in the lead. Peru and Cameroon are examples of current expansion elsewhere. In Indonesia two phases of new establishment of palm oil coexist within a forest transition gradient: (i) (industry-led) expansion into new forest margins with many social and ecological consequences; and (ii) (often farmer-led) conversion of existing agroforestry and tree crop (often rubber-based) or pasture economies in mosaic landscapes. External consumer concerns refer to the expansion phase, rather than to production sustainability or issues of smallholder concern. However, certification standards are only partially adjusted to the latter. After a ‘voluntary industry standards’ phase of differentiation with and shifting blame to non-certified others, government involvement in Malaysia and Indonesia suggests that standards and certification can trickle down to enforceable good practice standards for all. This leads to ineffective policies that does not address the real issues in local context. On the other hand, subnational jurisdictional entities are the scale at which oil palm production can be balanced with other goals, such as forest conservation and smallholder welfare.