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Have Asia Pulp & Paper reformed? So far so good

PR you couldn’t buy but have to earn

So finally in February this year Asia Pulp & Paper, by some estimates the world’s largest firm of their type, made the momentous decision to stop cutting down virgin Indonesian forest.

They said they’d focus on supplier management of that goal and plantation fibre sourcing over rainforest.

The decision had been a long time coming.

I’ve followed the campaign for more than a decade. We first reported on it in 2002/3 in the pages of Ethical Corporation.

The decision, announced at the start of this year, had been on the cards for a while, of course.

Greenpeace had run one of its longest and most determined campaigns against the company.

That campaign was, say some, costing the company millions, perhaps tens, perhaps more, of dollars in lost business as brand after brand committed not to source from APP given their deforestation practices.

Eventually APP changed tack. They’ve made some important, and possibly industry changing commitments.

They’ve taken a lot of flak for that, from competitors, and others, who have a financial interest in the status quo of deforestation in Indonesia.

There’s always much going on behind the scenes in Indonesia. 

In early June the company announced a deadline of August 31, 2013 for all natural forest wood felled prior to February 1, 2013, to have reached its pulp mills.

“After this date”, they say, “no natural forest fiber will be able to enter APP log yards.”

This is a good start. And in my view, they have some good partners (now) and much improved advice which they are listening to.

I know Scott Poynton, Executive Director of TFT, their ‘on the ground’ NGO partner, well, and I know he’s not someone who could ever be ‘bought’ by any company. He’s a person of strong views and strong principles.

So when Scott says: “TFT’s work with APP is going as strongly as we had hoped. There have been some issues, but the important thing is that we’re learning from these, and with the help of NGOs, we continue to move the project forward”

Then I believe him. There have been bumps in the road for sure, but the company and its partners seems to be handling them and sticking to the plan.

That’s worthy of congratulation during a year when backtracking on commitments seems more acceptable than ever before, for some people, organisations and governments.

I must disclose here that I know many of the parties involved today with APP well, with the exception of the PR companies.

But I should also say I have no financial interest: I was a clear opponent of APP’s deforestation practices, but I’m also ready, when Greenpeace, TFT and others tell me they are reforming, to give them the benefit of the doubt and offer whatever support I can to make that goal happen.

We’ve seen a clear change in tone since February, a much more humble, open, engaged APP.

That’s another good sign of progress.

APP, in my view, didn’t mean to end up at the centre of a major NGO campaign.

Bad things happen to reasonable people when they are trapped in poorly designed and dumb systems (look at the banks, bank workers ain’t all ‘bad’).

That’s just what happened with APP. Not only were they stuck in an older mindset, they were excruciatingly badly counselled by a number of advisors, who seemed to think they could “PR” their way out of a crisis.

In today’s world, it’s clear that only genuine, multi-stakeholder, closely monitored progressive activity can deliver real results when the campaign is so high profile, as this one was. 

That’s to be celebrated and APP’s progress (so far) shows that advice from principled partners, connected with the right people, can be invaluable.

We all need new sustainability case studies, even heroes.

Certainly we need to move on from the same old names that top the polls of sustainability experts in the CR media.

It’s very early days for APP, but if they can be the company who changed the paper and pulp industry by creating a new supply and monitoring system, they may go down in history in a much more favourable way than press coverage prior to February 2013 currently shows.