How Asia Pulp & Paper learned to put down the chainsaw

For more than a decade, few companies have experienced worse environmental press than Asia Pulp and Paper. The company may have been one of the largest suppliers of paper and pulp products in the world, but it had also become an environmental pariah, synonymous with forest destruction in Indonesia and Southeast Asia and the target of numerous high-profile Greenpeace campaigns.

But on Feb. 5, to the surprise of green NGOs and businesses around the world, APP published a new "Forest Conservation Policy," committing categorically to an immediate and permanent halt of all logging in natural forest areas. Crucially, the new strategy was wide-ranging and detailed, covered both APP and its supply chain, and included a commitment to third-party monitoring carried out by not-for-profit The Forest Trust. Perhaps most important of all, it also had the endorsement of the company's longtime tormentors, Greenpeace.

Last week, BusinessGreen Plus sat down with Aida Greenbury, managing director for sustainability and stakeholder engagement, and Scott Poynton, executive director of The Forest Trust, to discuss how this genuinely historic transformation came about and ask, if even APP can see the light and embrace sustainability, why can't all firms?

BG+: When was the decision taken to halt deforestation of natural forests and can you tell us a little bit about the process behind that decision?

Aida Greenbury: A lot of people thought this was the result of three months, six months or maybe a one-year project. It's not -- it's actually been a multiyear process. Back in 2010 we received a lot of input from stakeholders and we realized that our sustainability program just was not good enough. We needed to have a clear target of what we wanted to achieve. We launched our first draft of the sustainability program back in 2010. We did not make a big fuss about it, because it was intended as a living document that would continuously improve. We launched it in 2010 with targets for greenhouse gas emissions and some other goals and forest protection and everything else. And then we looked at it ourselves and shared it with some of our stakeholders and we realized, "It's not really good enough, is it?"

We showed it to Scott [Poynton] in 2011 and he just said, "What are you trying to do here? You are trying to rebuild trust. Well, there's a big elephant in the room you've totally ignored." And we said, "You're absolutely right." We realized there was a huge gap in our initial draft sustainability plan, and that was that our roadmap did not address the major calls from civil society. It was tiptoeing around it, and that wasn't good enough, it wasn't going to get us anywhere.

But at that time in 2011 I don't think we were ready to address the calls from the NGOs head-on, because simply we did not know what it would mean. We did not know what it meant to stop deforestation. We were not sure we could do that. Our business is about conversion: converting land into plantation, and then making pulp and paper out of it. We couldn't understand how to do what the NGOs wanted us to do. We didn't understand what the impact to our operations would be if we did what they wanted us to do.

BG+: How did you come to that understanding?

Greenbury: That was the moment when we looked at our sister company, Golden Agri Resources, the palm oil company. They were already working with Scott and TFT at the time and they had just launched their policy. We talked internally to the company and its shareholders about the impact on operations. That was when we decided we needed to engage with The Forest Trust.

Next page: Trying to justify actions