Readers of my blog and Twitter account may be aware that I have long followed with keen interest (and often hostility) the sustainability performance and communications of Asia Pulp & Paper Group (APP). In 2011 I wrote an open letter to the company, and was surprised by the scale of the response and reaction it generated. I have continued to push hard for APP to scale down its green communications whilst ramping up its level of ambition when it comes to sustainable forestry.
At long last, there is good news. Today, in Jakarta, APP unveiled an immediate cessation of any further natural forest clearance throughout its supply chain. You can read the commitments in full here: http://tiny.cc/viy0rw
Coupled with stronger policies on human rights, and a commitment to transparency and NGO scrutiny, this is a landmark moment for a company with a deeply troubled past. In partnership with The Forest Trust (TFT), there is a better than good chance that APP has turned the corner towards real sector leadership in Indonesia, and possibly beyond. Greenpeace, long APP’s nemesis, has welcomed APP’s new Forest Conservation Policy, as you can see here: http://tiny.cc/p3x0rw
They will, of course, wait for proof that it is working on the ground, but for the first time, collaboration is on the table and there is a ceasefire in place that will, for now at least, end the mutual hostility and distrust that has for so long existed on all sides of the debate.
So this is a new chapter. I have always said that, if APP turned around, I would be among the first to praise them. That is only fair, and it’s clear that this commitment comes from the very top of the company. The Chairman’s presence at today’s event, which I attended, in Jakarta, was significant in itself. As was the attendance of some of APP’s harshest critics. Much of this progress is attributable to the truly ground-breaking work of TFT, not to mention the uncompromising pressure of highly successful market campaigns by Greenpeace and other campaigning NGOs. But it is also proof, long documented on this blog, that Greenpeace is fast to praise and collaborate when meaningful change is on the table. Now we must make sure that we all help APP meet the very high expectations it has set. That means those of us who have expended time and energy attacking APP must now be part of its recovery and rehabilitation. So to be clear – I’m rooting for APP as it embraces meaningful change. My view, and that of other conservationists I respect, is that further progress from APP will only now come from constructive engagement and encouragement. It is time to draw a line under the past.
To my surprise, APP’s senior management did not simply invite me to attend their announcement, but asked whether my organisation, the Robertsbridge Group, would feel able to assist them in the coming stages of their new journey. As you will imagine, this is something we thought about long and hard. Our view, as business campaigners ourselves, has always been that in order for APP to become credible on sustainability, it would need to go much further in meeting the expectations of key conservation and social stakeholders, not to mention customers. Now that tangible progress has been made towards a no deforestation commitment, and greatly improved levels of dialogue with Greenpeace, APP stands on the brink of a challenging but exciting journey. It will not all be plain sailing. This week I have had the chance to spend time with the senior leadership of APP, and they acknowledge that the next phase in their history will be tough, but they are absolutely clear that this new commitment is real. I believe them.
We have also discussed our ‘critical friend’ advisory role with some of the company’s harshest critics. They agreed that this announcement was a sufficiently important landmark to warrant providing APP with the right level of strategic help and guidance. Personally, I think it is a sign of change that APP would approach me at all, given that I have been more vocal about my views of them than I have of any other business in over 15 years of environmental advocacy. I admire that. It’s a sign of genuine engagement and a willingness to embrace critics rather than firing back with tired old PR.
I am genuinely excited about the potential for APP to become a true sustainability champion in the years ahead. But I feel it is absolutely critical to be open, from the outset, about our engagement with APP. Transparency at all levels will be the key to the success or failure of this mission, and everyone will be holding all parties involved to account, Robertsbridge Group included, as they should. I will keep you posted about APP, and hope that the news I share will be good news for rainforest conservation. If it is not, you can rest assured I will say so. But for now, the signs are certainly positive.