Faced with criticism from campaign groups, companies can fight with facts, engage or hide. APP has tried all three, none with much success
Villagers in Soran, close to Indonesia’s famous Prambanan Temple, are preparing for new neighbours. A new corporate-charitable partnership is to see the village flooded with 420 homes and guesthouses.
The brains behind the scheme – Asia Pulp & Paper and charity Habitat for Humanity – say the creation of a tourist “eco village” will establish a sustainable hospitality business for the low-income community.
Conservation groups aren’t so sure. The Indonesia-based activist group Greenomics echoes others when it says the project is evidence of the pulp company treating the country’s rainforests as its own “philanthropists”.
There is no love lost between activist campaigners and APP, a brand face of the Sinar Mas conglomerate. APP stands accused of destroying large chunks of Indonesia’s forest through its timber operations.
A recent report by environment group WWF alleges that APP is “directly responsible” for the loss of nearly 60,000 hectares of high conservation value forest. Such actions, it is claimed, are putting the protected Sumatran tiger under threat.
APP denies such claims. In its public statements, it claims to abide by Indonesian law when sourcing timber and wood.
The result is an ugly stalemate. For a company in campaigners’ sights, there are essentially three options: fight back with facts, engage your opponents or hide.
APP tried the first. For the years 2006 and 2007, the company issued extensive environment reports. The last one ran to 150 pages and was independently verified. It even got a B+ for compliance with the benchmark Global Reporting Initiative.
The strategy failed to convince its harshest critics. Rather than continue the laborious task of reporting, APP decided to fight even tougher.
Last year, it hired ITS Global – a firm that “consults on dynamic international issues” – to verify claims made against APP in a report by Greenpeace. Predictably, the hired consultancy accused the campaign group of using “false and misleading” information.
“Any information from the Greenpeace report should be treated with the utmost caution,” advised Alan Oxley, ITS Global’s chief executive.
Not all chose to hear, including many of APP’s major European customers. Retailers such as Carrefour, Leclerc, Tesco and Sainsbury’s have recently withdrawn APP products from sale.
APP has briefly toyed with engagement. In January, for instance, the company was invited to attend a debate hosted by London thinktank Chatham House on “illegal logging”. APP accepted, but on certain conditions. An audit of Greenpeace Indonesia’s activities was among them. As conditions are not acceptable to Chatham House, APP’s invitation was revoked.
Having tried the first two options without success, APP appears to have opted to hide. It is doing so behind charitable tie-ins such as the Soran eco-village. A visit to its corporate website will reveal a list of impressive-sounding conservation projects (as well as a gentle forest soundtrack).
Even with the help of global PR company Cohn & Wolfe, the strategy seems destined to fail. It is a “textbook case of old school PR”, according to Andy Tait, campaign manager at Greenpeace UK.
Meanwhile, another arm of Sinar Mas – palm oil supplier Golden Agri Resources – has announced a new policy designed to minimise impact on the most sensitive Indonesian forests. APP has not yet followed suit.
Every effort was made to elicit a response from APP. The company’s PR team provided Ethical Corporation with a two-line answer.
The first line directed us to the “various APP projects and CSR programmes” on the company’s website.
The second invited further questions. So we asked: “Do claims about the negative impacts of the company’s mainstream operations undermine the credibility of its voluntary CSR activities?”
No response ever came.