(By Emma Alberici --ABC.net.au, August 23, 2007)
Woolworths, Australia's biggest supermarket chain, has been caught telling shoppers that two of its home brand products are environmentally sustainable, when the company has never independently checked the validity of those claims. Packaging on the company's Select brand of toilet paper and tissues states the products come from an environmentally managed company, that is certified as being environmentally, socially and economically responsible. But ABC Radio's PM program has found at least two reports, plus an independent audit of the Indonesian company that supplies the pulp to Woolworths, that completely discredit that claim. Woolworths has now admitted it is still awaiting proper accreditation of its suppliers' operations in Indonesia from the industry's peak independent assessment body. Australia's biggest supermarket chain sources those products from APP, short for Asia Pulp and Paper, the world's largest pulp producer. A report by Indonesia's Centre for International Forestry Research last year found that APP relies on the clearing of natural forests in Sumatra for 60 to 70 per cent of its wood supply. Nazir Foead is the director for governance community and corporate engagement at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in Indonesia. "I think it's fair for us to say that Indonesian logging practices is still far from sustainable," he said.
"I think the biggest problem is because they have built the mill, the pulp mill, which have a very big processing capacity, while the plantation forests have not been built sufficiently.
"So the company almost always dependent upon the fiber coming from the natural forests clear-cut."
A report on Asia Pulp and Paper's operations, written by three leading green groups in August last year, claims there has been a close relationship between human rights violations and forest degradation in the development of pulp and paper in Sumatra, Indonesia.
It states that APP workers live in crowded conditions with minimum facilities and that "there is a great discrepancy between the wage received and the cost of living". Two audits Two separate audits of the company were conducted by the rainforest alliance Smartwood program, engaged by APP to monitor the conditions of high conservation-value forest areas within four APP sites. In 2005, the audits found significant weaknesses with the company's approach to management that resulted in a lack of protection or conservation of the forests in question. APP was issued with three major corrective action requests. In 2006, a follow-up audit found that none of those requests had been completed and four new corrective action requests were issued. The Alliance terminated its relationship with APP in February this year, stating that the company had not demonstrated a comprehensive, consistent or dedicated approach toward conservation management necessary to maintain or enhance the forest ecosystems. "Independent auditing by their own auditors, concluded that they failed ... in protecting high conservation value forests," Mr Foead said. Woolworths, which is the company in question in Australia that is supplied by Asia Pulp and Paper, claims on its packaging that it comes from sustainable forest fiber. Mr Foead says he understands that means it has to come from a plantation forest. "So it's not coming from clear-cut of tropical, natural forests," he said.
But if the paper comes from a plantation forest, which was developed on top of the prime habitat of rhino, tigers, orangutan, then of course it's not sustainable."
He says that is the kind of operation Asia Pulp and Paper is what he sees on the ground. "That the company is still cutting down tiger habitats and elephant habitats in Sumatra," he said.
Woolworths released a statement to PM stating that its current sustainable forests fiber logo was created by APP.
Woolworths admits that it has not conducted an independent verification of APP's sustainability claims.
But says that APP's operations in Indonesia have recently completed the Forest Stewardship Council's chain of custody audit process and that the company is awaiting confirmation of approval that accreditation status in the next few weeks.
The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) closely monitors companies like Woolworths that make sustainability claims about their suppliers.
ACCC chairman Graeme Samuel says the Commission does receive complaints about false claims being made as to sustainability or the environmental impacts of products that are advertised as being environmentally sustainable. "We view those seriously," he said. "They are as much misleading and deceptive conduct as any other form of misleading and deceptive conduct.
"At the same time, we are finding that products that have these claims attached to them often have also attached to them premium prices and when consumers are potentially misled or deceived into paying premium prices for sustainable products that are not-otherwise sustainable, then clearly that is of concern."
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