The Singapore Environment Council (SEC), the non-profit organisation behind the country’s most prominent eco-certification scheme, on Tuesday unveiled what it calls “some of the world’s toughest environmental standards” for sustainable pulp and paper products.
The Singapore Green Labelling Scheme’s (SGLS) enhanced pulp and paper criteria, which SEC developed in collaboration with consulting giant Deloitte, features new requirements such as peatland protection and fire management.
Peat, a waterlogged and carbon-rich soil that is found across much of Indonesia, has been at the heart of the debate about the paper sector’s environmental impact for decades.
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Companies need to drain peat to plant acacia trees, but dry peat is extremely flammable. Much of the burning that occurs in Indonesia every dry season, which engulfs Southeast Asia in a toxic haze almost every year has been caused by fires on dry peat.
Isabella Loh, chairman, SEC, said in a statement that the Singapore Green Label for pulp and paper products became a “rallying point for consumer action against the haze” in 2015.
The enhanced criteria, which was developed in the aftermath of the haze crisis, is an effort by SEC to address root causes of the haze such as peat and forest fires, and “gives consumers the ability to make reliable choices and take action against companies that cause the haze”, shared Loh.
“The green label also gives consumers the ability to reward companies that do the right thing and have a supply chain that has been audited to be sustainable,” she added.
Firms have tried to address the burning through “peatland management”, which entails maintaining water tables just below the surface in concessions and setting aside conservation areas. But environmentalists stress that all peat should be restored to its fully flooded state to prevent irreversible environmental damage.
SEC’s criteria on peatland management examines issues such as biodiversity protection, water management, and rehabilitation of damaged areas.
However, Andy Tait, senior campaign advisor, Greenpeace, told Eco-Business that “this approach from SEC risks being overly simplistic and achieving little”.
“SEC appears to be badly misinformed about peatland management—the reality is that any drainage of peat to plant pulpwood makes it susceptible to fire,” said Tait. “This is not just about uncontrolled drainage.”
New criteria, new process
In addition to peat management, companies must also demonstrate fire prevention measures including efforts to map fire risks, investing in firefighting training and equipment, and engaging the community.
The new scheme also requires companies to disclose their entire supply chains, from plantation to retailer, and to prove that all the fibre they source is legal.
The enhanced scheme also features changes to the certification process.
The new SEC certificate is valid for three years, while the old certificate was valid for one year. Companies will pay S$4,600 for the certification, compared to the S$1,500 application fee and S$1,000 yearly renewal costs previously.
SEC, or the third-party auditors it engages, also plans to undertake a “risk based evaluation”, where companies deemed to be at a high risk of environmental violations will be subject to additional investigation.
“The risk-based evaluation system is a safeguard against companies that may have the required paperwork but are not achieving sustainability in practice,” said SEC.
Paper companies welcomed the new criteria. Anuj Lal, group general manager Asia Pacific, Kimberly-Clark Professional, said that the paper products company would “immediately” be applying for the new label for its Scott and Kleenex brand products.
“We want our customers to know that we produce quality products manufactured to the highest environmental standards,” he added.
Lucita Jasmin, director for sustainability and external affairs, Asia Pacific Resources International Limited (APRIL)—Indonesia’s second largest paper firm—also noted that its PaperOne product has held the Singapore Green Label since 2013, and said that the company is keen to renew the label.
“As far as we are aware, no forestry-related certification standard covers fire and peatland management in its criteria,” said Jasmin. “We applaud the SEC for taking this bold step.”
Competitor firm Asia Pulp and Paper (APP), which had the Green Label stripped from its products in 2015 after being heavily implicated in Indonesia’s worst haze season on record, said it had attended a briefing organised by SEC about the new criteria, but declined to elaborate on its plans to apply for the new label.
However, Kavickumar Muruganathan, former head of eco-certifications at SEC and former manager of sustainability and stakeholder engagement at APP noted that smaller companies may struggle to meet the new information requirements.
He added: “Industry and public perception of this enhanced criteria remains to be seen”.
SEC appears to be badly misinformed about peatland management—the reality is that any drainage of peat to plant pulpwood makes it susceptible to fire.
Andy Tait, senior campaign advisor, Greenpeace
Other NGOs also took a more circumspect view towards the scheme’s criteria and development process.
Tan Yi Han, president of Singaporean advocacy group People’s Movement against the Haze (PM Haze), noted that it was not consulted in the criteria development process, despite its active involvement in haze, deforestation, and public education in Singapore and Indonesia.
Last year for example, PM Haze teamed up with the World Wide Fund for Nature to launch the We Breathe What We Buy campaign, which asked consumers to buy only products containing deforestation-free palm oil.
SEC declined to share the names of the industry, civil society, and academic representatives it had consulted for the criteria development, citing confidentiality concerns.
PM Haze executive director Zhang Wen welcomed the criteria’s focus on peat and fire issues, but questioned the transparency of the process.
“How would a company be considered high-risk? Without subjecting all companies to audit, how will companies be verified to be haze free?” she asked. “Without transparency, consumers will not be able to rely on the certification to guide their purchases”.
Greenpeace’s Tait also questioned who would be evaluating whether company efforts to protect peatlands and biodiversity were satisfactory, noting that “they certainly cannot be trusted to self-report on these sort of issues”.
SEC did not reveal this information either, noting only that the criteria had been developed in collaboration with anonymous peat experts from industry and academia.
The organisation’s new scheme comes after months of controversy within its management. The company’s executive director, deputy executive director, and communications director were dismissed in quick succession late last year, without clear reasons given.
Addressing the lack of an executive director, Loh noted: “We will make an announcement on this position at an appropriate time.”