Opinion

Asia Pulp & Paper’s call to end deforestation: the biggest PR turnaround story ever? Or greenwash?

APP caresAsia Pulp & Paper, one of the world’s largest paper producers, has just celebrated the first anniversary of a landmark decision to stop cutting down rainforests in Indonesia, which has been received lots of media attention and even praised by its old adversary, Greenpeace. But is their chest-beating justified? Or is it greenwash, asks Robin Hicks.

I received a press release at the end of last week that I found very hard to take seriously.

Asia Pulp & Paper, which only a year ago was the enemy of every environmental NGO, climate scientist and tree-hugger the world over, was asking charities, governments and the business world to join it in its crusade to end deforestation in Indonesia.

The headline of the press release reads:

Asia Pulp and Paper Calls on NGOs, Governments and Businesses to Collaborate to Protect Indonesia’s Forests

Um, excuse me?

This is a company that, according to a senior green group strategist I met in Myanmar last week, is the main reason why 50 per cent of Sumatra’s forest cover and peatland (which locks in carbon like nowhere on earth) is now gone, why Sumatran tigers, rhinos and elephants are on the brink of extinction, and part of the reason why Indonesia has a big, ugly carbon footprint.

This is a company that, for many years, has ignored calls from NGOs to use trees sustainably. And it has relied on the spin of PR agencies such as WPP public relations firms Cohn & Wolfe and PPR, toe-curling TV commercials featuring images of the wildlife it claims to protect (but has left homeless), and the persuasive talents of its head of sustainability (who also handles PR) Aida Greenbury – who apparently once said she cried the first time she saw a tree cut down – to defend its image.

This is a company that an ad agency in Indonesia – which has a tobacco client – refused to pitch for a few years ago.

And now, as the Sinar Mas-owned giant – which markets brands such Livi toilet roll and Paseo tissues in 120 countries – celebrates the first anniversary of its policy to stop natural forest clearance in Indonesia across its supply chain, it is claiming the moral high ground.

The press release claims that the company’s move is “a breakthrough moment for the global protection of natural forest.”

It says that its plan to manage and protect what’s left is “the largest and most ambitious plan” of its kind the world has ever seen.

In the release, Aida Greenbury says that while APP is putting its plan to save the forests into action, it cannot work alone. Others must follow the example it has set the forestry industry.

Aida GreenburyShe then says: “The days of campaigning against businesses that have shown commitment to change the way they operate, as we have, should be brought to a conclusion.”

So, in other words: now that we’ve said that we’ll be kinder to the environment, please Greenpeace, WWF and others, please leave us alone?

Bob Pickard, the Asia Pacific chairman of PR agency Huntsworth, is actually impressed with this approach. “Compared to APP’s defensive and tough-talking communications tone in past, their proactive advocacy and engagement on deforestation certainly strikes a much more agreeable chord and overall it adds up to much smarter public relations,” he says.

“In the old days, APP would aggressively attack critics and now the company says ‘transparency’ and ‘listening’ are its way of doing things. This dramatically different PR posture is nothing less than a wonder to behold,” says Pickard.

But one thing should be clear. APP did not stop cutting down trees because it suddenly grew a conscience. It did so because it was losing customers.

A few years ago, a story on Mumbrella about an ad for Solaris, an APP subsidiary, calling for collaboration with Greenpeace after the NGO claimed that a tiger had been trapped near one of APP’s forestry concessions in Indonesia, revealed the affect that pressure was having.

The comment thread beneath the story turned abusive towards a Greenpeace campaigner, calling him “scum” and a “fucking idiot”. The comments turned out to be from Solaris staff.

Not long before that story, an Australian supermarket chain cut Solaris from its supply chain as a result of pressure from Greenpeace. It was not the first to do so.

Globally, APP was hurting from Greenpeace campaigns. This ad was part of a push that eventually persuaded Mattel to stop being a client of APP’s.

As Pickard points out: “There will be those who question whether the shift was sincere or if they were basically forced to change because the commercial cost of being so infamously combative was getting too high.”

Surprisingly, Greenpeace has welcomed APP’s rallying cry with more enthusiasm than other green groups such as WWF, who have been more skeptical.

In a measured statement, Greenpeace said APP was “making progress in implementing its conservation commitments,” despite the “many challenges” in Indonesia, referring to APP gripes that the government has been handing out overlapping concession licences.

It then did APP a big favour by turning its focus on the competition. “APP’s progress helps to increase the pressure on other forest destroyers, such as APRIL/RGE group, which is now the biggest driver of deforestation for pulp in Indonesia,” the NGO said.

Now, anyone who cares about the environment (I’m a tree hugger and have supported Greenpeace since I opened my first bank account) can see that APP’s efforts are to be applauded. But as my friend suggested, perhaps it’s too soon to be believing their story.

They have reneged on promises in the past, he said. Why trust them now? Just because they’ve stopped illegal logging in Sumatra, will they now move on to Borneo?

APP is the world’s third largest paper company. But it wants, as Aida Greenbury has said in the company’s TV commercials, to be the biggest. Adopting a position as an industry leader in saving the forests is their strategy.

If APP sticks to its promises and realises is ambitions while doing so, this could turn out to be one of the biggest brand turnaround stories in recent history in Asia.

But if it is found to have been stretching the truth, the company will write itself into marketing text books in the chapter on greenwashing.

As Pickard cautions: “Keeping in mind how much ‘greenwash’ marketing APP has been accused of before, some will be reluctant to believe this ‘new APP’ image.'”

But perhaps even APP should be given the benefit of the doubt.

“Arguably there has been in the past some hypocrisy in the criticism of Asian pulp and paper companies from the wealthy West, where the forests were exploited for profit generations ago,” Pickard observes.

“If Western companies can now be trusted to sustainably manage their forestry resources, then Asian companies should be encouraged and supported when they declare their intention to change for the better and do exactly the same thing,” he says.

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