Toby Webb welcomes Asia Pulp and Paper’s progress since their no-more-deforestation declaration

So, finally, in February 2013, Asia Pulp and Paper, by some estimates the world’s largest company in its sector, made the momentous decision to stop cutting down virgin Indonesian forest. It said it would focus on supplier management to achieve this goal and develop fibre sourcing from plantations over rainforest.

The decision had been a long time coming. NGOs have been campaigning against APP for more than a decade. We first reported on it in 2002 in the pages of Ethical Corporation. Greenpeace, for one, had been running one of its 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, because of their deforestation practices.

Eventually APP changed tack. And 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.

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 fibre will be able to enter APP log yards.”

This is a good start. And APP has some good partners (now) and much improved advice, to which the company appears to be listening.

Scott Poynton, executive director of TFT, APP’s on the ground NGO partner, is not someone who could ever be “bought” by any company. He’s a person of strong views and strong principles.

Poynton 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.”

OK, 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.

No backsliding

And 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 know and have worked with many of the parties now involved with APP, helping the company reform its forest policies. These are credible people, companies and organisations, and when they say that APP is reforming then everyone else should sit up and listen, and offer whatever support they can to help the company achieve its newly stated goals. While APP was worthy of criticism in the past, equally we all need to praise efforts to reform.

We’ve seen a clear change in tone since February, a much more humble, open, engaged APP. That’s another good sign of progress.

But APP 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 advisers, who seemed to think they could “PR” their way out of a crisis.

In today’s world, it’s clear that only genuine, multistakeholder, 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. As Peter Knight pointed out in June’s Ethical Corporation, we certainly need to move on from the same old names that top the polls of sustainability experts in the CR media.

Not that Patagonia, Interface, Unilever, Marks & Spencer, Coca-Cola et al don’t deserve some serious plaudits for some of their work. They do. But we need more companies to break new ground in sustainable systems change, to demonstrate that responsible business does not just makes sense for charismatic CEOs or far-sighted consumer brands, but for everyone else too.

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.

Toby Webb is founder of Ethical Corporation and Stakeholder Intelligence.

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