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The Big Read: Consumers, NGOs take up fight against haze but it is a long trudge

We Breathe What We Buy campaign members (from left) Tan Yi Han, Elaine Tan and Cheong Poh Kwan. Photo: Jason Quah

We Breathe What We Buy campaign members (from left) Tan Yi Han, Elaine Tan and Cheong Poh Kwan. Photo: Jason Quah

SINGAPORE — For decades, Singaporeans and businesses here have suffered from the thick smog blown over from the Indonesian forests, finding themselves helpless and at the mercy of the winds. 

But this time, many are saying: Enough is enough.

Established non-governmental organisations (NGOs) such as the local branch of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF-Singapore) and the Singapore Environment Council (SEC), as well as groups that were formed in recent years in response to the haze problem, have come out in full force, urging consumers and businesses to play their part in the fight.

On social media, other groups and individuals are also speaking up and calling for boycotts against companies responsible for the forest fires in Indonesia. 

Consumers and NGOs have also been emboldened and enabled by the new laws that the Singapore Government passed last year — which, among other things, provide for both criminal and civil actions against errant firms. The recent identification of the errant companies by the National Environment Agency (NEA) has also given ammunition for consumer ire. 

But can consumer power snuff out a decades-long pollution problem? In theory, it is conceivable: Tap the collective consumer power to put pressure on errant companies to change their ways. In practice, however, many roadblocks lie in the way. 

Businesses say consumers have to drive the change, by being willing to pay more for green products, for example. Consumer awareness is also lacking, even though it is picking up. A campaign launched in July to raise awareness for sustainable produces has thus far garnered less than 20 per cent of its target of 50,000 pledges. 

“It is somewhat a catch-22 situation at the start,” said National University of Singapore (NUS) economist and former Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) Ivan Png, who agreed that there is a need to overcome the “initial hurdle” of driving consumer demand for sustainably-produced goods, before businesses can align their practices accordingly.

Mr Tan Yi Han, founder of People’s Movement to Stop Haze (PM.Haze) which was formed in 2013 when Singapore suffered its worst bout of haze to date, noted that some businesses he spoke to said consumer behaviour can be “hypocritical”.

“One of them shared that consumers are the biggest hypocrite. They talk a lot but are not willing to pay. So I guess from their perspective, consumer demand must first pick up,” he said. 

We Breathe What We Buy campaign members (from left) Tan Yi Han, Elaine Tan and Cheong Poh Kwan. Photo: Jason Quah

Even before the haze shot past unhealthy levels this year, three non-government groups had joined forces to start a movement advocating for sustainable palm oil as a way to alleviate the haze problem. 

Jointly launched by WWF-Singapore, PM.Haze, and the Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA) in July, “We Breathe What We Buy” aims to collect 50,000 pledges from consumers to support companies that go “haze-free”. So far, it has collected about 7,500 pledges.  

Through roadshows, school talks and a campaign website, some 20 volunteers set out to educate consumers on sustainable practices in palm oil production, which include, among other things, those made from palm plantations that do not encroach on significant biodiversity and wildlife habitat, for example. 

PM.Haze’s Mr Tan said the campaign aims to heighten public awareness that consumers can drive positive change. “For many years, people have accepted that the problem lies in Indonesia and not in Singapore. The knowledge gap needs to be bridged,” he said.

With public support, WWF-Singapore will engage companies here to work on long-term solutions that will encourage the use of Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO). These include oil suppliers Fuji Oil and Cargill. European companies are leading the charge internationally, setting the target to achieve 100 per cent CSPO by 2020. 

For now, the campaign is still at its infancy phase, stressed WWF-Singapore campaign manager Louise Wood. “We need to build the pledges up, which we are (doing) and there is momentum. When we think there is enough, (we will) take them to manufacturers and retailers… the pledges are a powerful component of this campaign. They demonstrate the demand.”

Another group determined to bring on a fight against the haze problem is the Haze Elimination Action Team (HEAT). Led by Professor Ang Peng Hwa from the Nanyang Technological University’s Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information, the group — which started in 2007 as a Facebook group — plans to boycott and sue companies responsible for the fires. 

One firm in its sights is Indonesian company Asia Pulp & Paper Company (APP), which has an office here. APP is under investigation by the National Environment Agency (NEA) and Indonesian authorities for links to the haze-causing fires. 

Last week, the NEA evoked the Transboundary Haze Pollution Act for the first time, by serving a notice on APP to provide information on its subsidiaries here and in Indonesia, as well as the measures taken by its suppliers in Indonesia to put out fires in their concessions.

To date, it has also served “preventive measure notices” on five Indonesia companies alleged to have had a hand in the fires. These are PT Rimba Hutani Mas, PT Sebangun Bumi Andalas Wood Industries, PT Bumi Sriwijaya Sentosa, PT Wachyuni Mandira and PT Bumi Mekar Hijau. The notices require the firms to deploy fire-fighting personnel to extinguish or prevent the spread of any fire on land owned or occupied by them, and discontinue any burning activities on such land, among other things.

People in Singapore wearing masks to protect themselves from the haze. Photos: Jason Quah

HEAT’s bid to sue errant companies and its search for “an ideal plaintiff”, funding and lawyers to do the job pro bono were reported in the media. 

As of yesterday (Oct 2), an individual “with a medical condition” and several business owners have come forward as plaintiffs, Prof Ang said. 

The group’s Facebook page has more than 1,850 members — typically the more “angry, upset, and usually environmentally conscious”, in Prof Ang’s words.

“There are opinion leaders among them. Some of them will persuade others not to buy these products, so there is potential for (the group) having a wider effect,” he said. 

After NEA served its notice on APP, an online petition was started last Sunday by a group calling itself Sg Beware urging a boycott of 56 brands under the APP umbrella, such as Livi, Nice and Office Print. It has yet to gain traction. As of press time, there were 25 signatories. 

However, not everyone is convinced of the effectiveness of boycotts. 

WWF Singapore’s Ms Wood said: “Boycotts are useful for expressing displeasure, but may not be all that successful when it comes to changing a company’s policies… What we would like to do is give companies who aren’t using sustainable sources every opportunity to reach that position. We would like to think that every company has opportunity to improve their situation.” 

Upon garnering a substantial number of pledges in its campaign, WWF Singapore and co-organisers of the “We Breathe What We Buy” movement plans to engage manufacturers and retailers in a two-step support process: First, by assessing their needs for palm oil, and second, by putting them in touch with suppliers of sustainable palm oil. Businesses also need to be educated, said PM.Haze founder Mr Tan.

Mr Tan argued that boycotts may discourage companies from being transparent.

Citing recent investigations on APP as an example, he said: “(APP) is one of the more transparent companies in (making public) their suppliers and maps. Ironically, that could be what caused them to be investigated. So if we are boycotting… you may disincentivise other companies from being transparent. Boycotting ultimately will not shift the industry. It will make the bad guys try and hide even more.”

Prof Ang disagreed. Boycotting is a viable option to effect change, he said.

“We are not calling for a blanket boycott. We are quite careful in targeting companies… so it is quite watertight. You have to have a heaven and a hell, heaven for those who do good, hell for those who do bad,” he said.

Educational efforts are expensive and effective only “up to a point”, said Prof Ang. In 2007, HEAT raised some S$20,000 for an education campaign in Jambi, a province in South Sumatra, to urge local farmers not to engage in slash-and-burn practices.

Prof Ang added: “Boycotts have worked elsewhere, and since we are trying new things, plus education is expensive and there is no incentive to penalise, boycotting is something we should explore.”

He noted that consumers and environmental activists are now more “receptive” to boycotts, compared to the past. “I guess everyone got more fed up with the recurring haze...the boycott has certainly gained more traction these days.”  

NTU Professor Ang Peng Hwa leads a volunteer group called the Haze Elimination Action Team (HEAT). Photo: Jason Quah

The SEC is also pressing for change on the business front. The NGO has signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Singapore Manufacturing Federation (SMF) to encourage sustainable procurement among manufacturers. For instance, letters have been sent to some 2,800 members asking for their commitment towards responsible sourcing of palm oil, wood and pulp products.

SEC said that only 10 per cent of palm oil products from Indonesia are certified to be sustainable by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). It hopes to raise this figure to 75 per cent, by urging ethical procurement to put pressure on suppliers. It is also working on a new scheme with a “holistic set of strict criteria” to allow it to certify palm oil products.

To date, only 17 firms based in Singapore have attained the CSPO, according to the RSPO website. 

Some manufacturers have started to “green” their supply chain but they still struggle with cost management issues and lack of awareness among suppliers, said Singapore Business Federation Chief Executive Officer Ho Meng Kit.

Agreeing, SMF Secretary-General Lam Joon Khoi said: “We should not expect our members to change their business practices overnight, as some may have contractual obligations with their suppliers.” 

Slashing and burning forests is cheaper than clearing them with machinery, and companies that seek to minimise environmental and social impact incur additional costs.

For now, sustainable solutions often come with a price tag, Unilever Vice President for Procurement Biswaranjan Sen reiterated. This is a major hurdle for firms looking to green their procurement processes, he added. The multi-national company aims to procure all its agricultural raw materials from sustainable sources by 2020.  

But PM.Haze’s Mr Tan pointed out that in some instances, the additional costs are not significant. For example, every litre of certified sustainable palm oil costs six cents more than uncertified ones.

SBF’s Mr Ho said that a lack of transparency in the supply chain also makes it difficult for consumers to track where the goods originate from. “Palm oil would have crossed hands from plantations, mills, distributors, manufacturers and consumer good companies. Many products remained unlabelled on the certification, source and origin when they reach the end-consumers,” he said.

Despite these obstacles, some Singapore firms have begun to make inroads towards sustainability. Just last week, new homegrown company NooTrees - which is owned by Singapore-based F J Benjamin Group - started selling bamboo-based tissue paper and wet wipe products, touted to be “100 per cent sustainable and biodegradable”. 

NooTrees General Manager David Ward said that firms can, and have to, commit to sustainability. “The technology is available, but such products are not available (to consumers). This is why we started NooTrees. What people buy is what we offer, and we want consumers to be able to make the switch when they are standing on the supermarket aisle… Not just because of the environmental impact it causes today, but for the long term sustainability of the Earth,” said Mr Ward.

Some of NooTrees products are more expensive. For instance, a pack of ten toilet rolls costs S$7.95, compared to the typical cost of between S$4 and S$5.

A box of NooTrees facial tissue is priced at S$2, compared to local house brands, which are selling at S$3.50 to S$5 for four boxes.

Mr David Ward of NooTrees with the company’s bamboo-based tissue paper and wet wipe products, which are touted to be ‘100 per cent sustainable and biodegradable’. Photo: Wee Teck Hian
NASA satellite image from Sept 24 shows smoke from fires in Indonesia over the coasts of Borneo and Sumatra with Singapore barely visible on the left. Photo: NASA

NGOs are also working to raise environmental consciousness among other players along the entire supply chain. SIIA, for instance, has reached out to over several banks and financial institutions in Singapore to raise awareness of sustainable financing and investing. While global banks such as Standard Chartered and Citibank factor in environmental and social risks when they consider which projects to finance, these do not feature in Singapore banks’ policies, said SIIA Assistant Director Cheong Poh Kwan, who added that there are about 70 financial institutions here.

However, she said the Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation (OCBC) has taken the “first step” by starting to incorporate environmental risk factors in its corporate credit policies. At a sustainability dialogue held by SIIA in May, OCBC Chief Risk Officer Vincent Loo said: “There are cases whereby (OCBC) actually discourage lending to companies that embark on environmentally damaging projects.” 

Last week, former Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Vivian Balakrishnan - who has since taken on the foreign affairs portfolio - said the Government is reviewing its procurement practices to see how it can weed out errant companies. For example, it will look into how it can support companies which are recognised by their industry or by international bodies to have instituted sustainable practices.

NGOs welcomed the move. SEC executive director Edwin Seah said: “If consumers can make their stand that they want to see their products being made with raw materials from sustainable sources, coupled with the Government’s commitment on green procurement, it will definitely send a strong signal to suppliers to make the change.” 

NUS’ Prof Png added: “The Government and its agencies are among the largest buyers of paper products in Singapore. They can really set the lead in this movement.”

While it will be a long trudge to end the haze problem via consumer action, there is optimism among some that the nascent efforts here will pay off eventually. 

Organisers of the We Breathe What We Buy campaign noted the significant jump in the number of pledges over the last three weeks when PSI levels reached unhealthy levels. “This prolonged period of haze has inspired people to find out more about the causes… momentum is growing and it is definitely leading somewhere,” said Ms Wood. 

She cited the Forest Stewardship Council certification for pulp and paper products as a success story where consumer pressure led to positive change.

“The widespread usage of FSC certification today resulted from greater consumer awareness, then manufacturers and retailers responded by aligning themselves to a certification…That is what (our campaign) is trying to do with palm oil now,” she said. 

Mr Tan also cited the example of how nature lovers here had banded together in the early 2000s to save Chek Jawa in Pulau Ubin from redevelopment. “Among local consumers, there is definitely some traction… compared to the past where grassroots action was more to do with distributing masks, now people are starting to get more enlightened about how our consumption plays a role,” he said. 

Dr Joelle Lai from the NUS Department of Biological Sciences said grassroots movements can be significant by causing “minor changes in consumer behaviour, because it all adds up”. But she said: “One challenge is to keep up the momentum, such that when the winds change and all is well again, people do not forget and continue to exercise their awareness in everyday decisions.”

But other experts felt that it would take much more than efforts of individuals, NGOs and businesses here to solve the problem. 

NUS political scientist Reuben Wong said: “The Indonesians themselves need to put a lot of pressure on their government. If consumers in Indonesia and Malaysia don’t like this destruction and can trace who is responsible for fires, blacklist these companies, they have no choice but to close down, or no choice but to start being more responsible.” 

"Governments in the region also have to work together and come up with a response plan, similar to what is in place when natural disasters strike, he added. He noted that it has been almost two decades since Southeast Asia was first affected by a major haze episode in 1997.

However, not much has been done since. “Indonesia only rectified the ASEAN Agreement on Transbooundary Haze last year, 18 years since 1997… The impact of the haze does not occur as immediately as, say, a tsunami, which actually means we have more time to react. But we are not reacting,” he said.

Prof Png, who is a strong advocate of transboundary haze regulations and spoke frequently on the topic during his NMP stint about a decade ago, said that more teeth must be built into the Transboundary Haze Pollution Act, such as by rewarding whistleblowers for providing information on irresponsible stakeholders. “We need the whole system of ecology to respond, the manufacturers, retailers, the end-users and regulators. Every piece has to be in play,” he said.

Cable cars moving towards the island resort of Sentosa are shrouded by haze in Singapore September 29, 2015. Photo: Reuters

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