Anyone trying to buy products that are environmentally and socially sustainable and not harmful to human rights or the environment faces an immense challenge. Not only are more and more environmental and human rights groups turning certification labelling into a profitable business (more business than protection), their claims seem less and less credible. Deforestation and biodiversity loss continues at an alarming rate, while child labour and forced labour continues to be widespread, with no sign of declining. What is declining is people’s confidence in large multinational corporations with extensive global supply chains being able to live up to their sustainability claims.

Underpinning the gap between these claims and the reality is the issue of traceability. Companies must know exactly where each and every ingredient came from, the impact of how it was grown, raised, caught and/or produced, how it travelled through the supply chain and under what environmental and social conditions, to end up in the final product. Only through traceability can they know. And they don’t know. One reason is that the responsibility of monitoring and reporting is outsourced to third-party certification agencies, foundations and organizations, including NGOs, who are effectively paid to police themselves.

Block chain is presented as the technological answer. But block chain only ensures no one can tamper with information inputted along the way. So if the information inputted (by humans) is unreliable, then block chain preserves the integrity of the lie. It cannot be tampered with.

Another reason traceability is problematic is that there are grey areas where it is unclear where the ingredient or produce came from. In fisheries this includes distant water fishing (DWF) fleets mixing the catch at sea and deliberately mislabeling the point of origin. Or seafood companies semi-processing in informal peeling sheds before bringing the product into their factories. In agriculture, sugar, tobacco, and palm oil are not sourced from identifiable farms or fields, but are presented by buyers and “middle-men” as a single crop. Or under coffee and cacao certification the certification bodies allow the misuse of farmers’ names and farm locations to claim that it meets all the requirements. And farmers still don’t get the promised premium.

This is clearly demonstrated by the “mixed” trademark of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). The “mixed” certification label means that RSPO certified the palm oil used in the product under its Mass Balance supply chain approach. Mass Balance means that palm oil made from palm kernel harvested in plantations certified as free from deforestation, environmental destruction, and human rights abuses is mixed with palm kernel from plantations not certified as free from deforestation, environmental destruction, and human rights. So “on balance” RSPO and its corporate customers hope it turns out okay in terms of the environment and human rights.

We could liken it to the warning of possible allergens in packaged food labelling: “this product may contain traces of nuts”. This usually means food products containing nuts were manufactured on the same line, so traces may have ended up in the current food product. So what this really means is: we don’t know, there could be traces of nuts, so be careful. It’s precautionary. What the RSPO “mixed” labeling means is: we don’t know, and we won’t find out. It’s irresponsible.

The distinction between palm oil and palm kernel is significant. Most people (as informed consumers) believe that sustainable palm oil and 100% traceability concerns the palm oil plantations themselves. This is logical since deforestation, habitat destruction, biodiversity loss, greenhouse gas emissions from destruction of forests and peatland, forced labour, child labour, excessive pesticide use, land grabbing and displacement of indigenous peoples all occur on or around plantations. But within the industry palm oil is the product of palm oil refineries and traceability refers only to the ability to track palm oil shipments to the refinery itself. It is not traceable to the plantations.This allows a crucial grey area of flexibility. Companies can include palm kernel within the cope of sustainability if they have good examples to promote, and exclude it when forests are burning or human rights are violated. Like “mixed”, the interchangeable use of palm oil and palm kernel allows a very flexible use of traceability, which in turns allows deniability.

The “mixed” RSPO label means that you are consuming a product that was made with some sustainable palm oil, and some unsustainable palm oil. There might be some deforestation and and rights abuse mixed in there, RSPO doesn’t know. But why doesn’t RSPO know? The reason is that there is still no system for monitoring and control to ensure compliance. This is partly because the entire system of regulation, monitoring and enforcement is privatized and financed by the companies using the RSPO certification labels.

As long as private industry certification organizations can monopolize a commodity or industry, they can limit the choices people make. In the case of the Maldives, union members of BKMU fish tuna sustainably with single pole lines with no by-catch, no harm to other species and no nets causing damage to the environment. But the distant water fishing (DWF) fleets backed by their own governments and the certification bodies can denounce tuna caught sustainably in the Maldives by unionized fishers, force it off the supermarket shelves in Europe, and replace it with marine species caught through destructive drift net fishing. There is no discussion of traceability when it comes to massive DWF trawlers killing a multitude of other marine species, destroying coral reefs and ocean habitats, and using abusive labour practices, including forced labour. It still ends up in supermarkets as sustainable, because the certification bodies, their “alliances” and corporate-backed NGOs say it is.

The only way for people to be certain that the products they consume aren’t linked to environmental destruction or human rights violations (and therefore really have a choice) is to ensure that the environment and human rights are protected. Palm oil companies and their buyers must stop lobbying against stricter environmental, labour and human rights legislation. They must stop undermining the efforts to protect the rights of rural communities and indigenous peoples – especially with regard to land rights. Palm oil companies and their buyers must stop the aggressive repression of trade union rights and guarantee all workers – especially migrant workers – have full and unconditional access to the right to freedom of association and collective bargaining. Rural communities, indigenous peoples, marginal farmers and workers must be self-organized, collectively represented, and be able to protect their rights and interests. Only then can we ensure the protection of the environment and human rights that people want and expect from the products they consume. There are no mixed messages in that.