Why Asia Pulp and Paper's zero-deforestation policy holds weight

Just over 18 months ago, Asia Pulp and Paper made a landmark commitment to cease all forest clearance activity. But despite being designed with significant input from Greenpeace, the new Forest Conservation Policy initially was greeted with a degree of scepticism — this, after all, was a company formerly synonymous with deforestation and consistently accused of "greenwash," with Greenpeace itself amongst its most vocal critics.

This scepticism further was fueled when claims duly emerged that APP suppliers in Indonesia were continuing with natural forest clearance in violation of the much-promoted policy.

And now TFT has released a new assessment with consultants Ata Marie that suggests APP is doing just that. Significantly, TFT's work confirms APP has enough plantations to meet all the pulp requirements of its existing mills and a future mill in Ogan Komering Ilir, South Sumatra, ensuring it can meet its zero-deforestation commitment without compromising its commercial development plans.

But a report published in April 2013 by independent non-profit group The Forest Trust, which worked with APP on its forests conservation policy, rejected the claims, finding "no violations" of APP's moratorium commitments. Subsequently, some clients that had boycotted the company over its poor environmental record started to return — the most prominent being U.S. giant Staples, which renewed a supply deal with APP five years after dropping the company. While the deal was criticized in some quarters, some commentators said the new contract would heap more pressure onto APP to ensure it continued to honor its new environmental commitments.

While TFT does forecast a small gap in supply in 2020, it says this could be closed through more efficient practices such as improving yields from existing plantations, better tree stock and reduced waste.

"We are pleased to be able to reassure everyone that APP and its suppliers have sufficient resource for the company's 100 percent plantation target," said Scott Poynton, executive director of TFT. "We have identified one minor gap in 2020 but this can be easily filled by increasing the productivity of the plantation operations between now and then."

APP's own update (PDF) on the FCP also maintains it is living up to its commitment — and winning customers as a result of the new policy.

According to its report, the last of the natural forest wood felled before the moratorium was processed in July, so from that point on APP pulp mills have been using wood sourced only from plantations.

And from the same point, the company introduced a new procedure mandating that all future suppliers and purchases have been compliant with the FCP since its introduction in February 2013.

These came after APP in April pledged to support the conservation of 1 million hectares of Indonesian rainforest, a commitment it admits will need to be extended beyond its own suppliers to the wider forest and peatland landscapes, which will require industry-wide support and funding.

But its efforts have not gone unnoticed. APP says Nestlé has "recently engaged" it on a trial basis, and will formalize the deal once mutually agreed performance criteria are met and supported by third-party evidence from a certification body.

Aida Greenbury, APP's managing director of sustainability, said there is still much left to do on the FCP, but insisted the company was on the right track towards its eventual goal of eliminating deforestation across the industry.

"The FCP is central to our business model and [the TFT] study proves that the model works — we can continue our operations and expand profitably without having a detrimental impact on forests in Indonesia or anywhere else in the world," she said. "When we launched the policy, we were moving into uncharted territory, but since then the 'Zero Deforestation' movement has become more and more global. With growing support from businesses, governments and civil society, we are proud to be playing a leading role in helping the world end deforestation."

The company is likely to provoke particular scrutiny from green groups for years to come, and some will argue that its new sustainable approach has been made possible only by widespread deforestation to make way for plantations in the past. But for now it seems APP is doing an impressive job of confounding the doubters and demonstrating that one of the world's largest paper suppliers can bring a halt to deforestation.

Top image: industrial timber plantation in Sumatra, Indonesia, by Tropenbos International.