‘More than just growing trees’: Joe Lawson, Chair, APRIL Stakeholder Advisory Committee
Lawson’s career paralleled the emergence of sustainability as a social, political, and eventually, a business platform. Initially, he worked on regulatory compliance – what we see now as the bare minimum for enabling sustainable forest management.
This led to his work in certification, from 1994, when he chaired several committees that revised and improved standards. It also brought him into contact with the big brands at the exposed, consumer facing, end of the supply chain – brands like Coca Cola and L’Oreal – where he was required to make the case for the sustainability (in all senses) of the raw material his company sold.
“My experience was that we had moved from a political license to operate, to gaining a social licence. Certification was, to me, a great advancement because it embraced every aspect of sustainability. Business was required to consider input from outside stakeholders, including environmental organizations and NGOs. Frankly, some of the most significant changes to forestry practices were, in large part, influenced by campaigning NGOs”.
“I can still remember the high levels of emotion in meetings, when we met with civil society to understand how we could best marry their beliefs with business maintenance. We drastically reduced the size of timber harvests and integrated community concerns into our management plans. Against this, we have to understand that forests will not be maintained without some form of economic return. A balance has to be struck”.
His work later took him around the world, and exposed him to forest industries in China, South East Asia, and South America. He became active with the World Business Council for Sustainable Development. His role with the WBCSD evolved into his chairing the work done by the World Resources Institute (WRI) to create the ‘Guide to Sustainable Procurement’.
It was while he was working with the WBCSD in Europe that he became familiar with APRIL. Following his retirement from the Mead Corporation in the U.S., he was asked if he would consider developing and chairing an external stakeholder advisory initiative for the company. “I was hesitant at first. But eventually I became convinced that APRIL was sincere in addressing my concerns, which included ensuring the independence of the committee and a solid commitment from senior management”. This work with APRIL was focused on forest sustainability issues in Indonesia.
“Indonesia has long been a country of focus for global NGOs, and others concerned with environmental and social sustainability matters. And yes, there is a legacy of widespread forest conversion, habitat and fauna destruction, and critically, inappropriate use of one of the world’s great carbon sinks, the country’s extensive peatlands. So, I get it. But, it is easy for the global community to criticize from the sidelines how Indonesia is developing – and often insensitively demand change. In fact, Indonesia’s issues are complex and if solutions are to be sustainable, they must be driven by local and national actors. Of course, there is much to learn from the mistakes the western world has made over the past century, and to Indonesia’s credit, there is a willingness to engage and seek advice from external experts”.
“In my view, the primary hurdle to implementing sustainable solutions to most natural resource issues in Indonesia is poverty alleviation. Unless poverty can be alleviated, implementing improved sustainability practices will be difficult, if not impossible. It’s easy to understand that, for many, the primary concern is feeding their families, and finding a pathway to a prosperous life for their children. Forest conversion, for example, is seen as having a better and more immediate economic yield than conservation. Although there will always be opportunities for improvement, APRIL has for decades put an emphasis on improving community livelihoods. The challenge is not only improving programs that companies like APRIL have in place, but also to make improving community livelihood a priority for all companies operating within Indonesia”.
“However, I am optimistic. Indonesia has a wealth of natural resources, and this can be a bankable resource, if sustainable alternatives to improper practices become attractive to local communities, and other affected stakeholders. There have been remarkable improvements in productivity that have increased the yield from plantations, and can reduce pressures on natural forests. Within the global agriculture sector, improvements in crop technology, food types, and agricultural systems are being developed, that can more efficiently provide resources, while conserving the natural environment. In many ways, Indonesia and more broadly, Southeast Asia, has the opportunity to be on the forefront of these emerging technologies”.
Lawson believes that opportunities clearly exist to place Indonesia firmly as a global leader in forest products manufacturing. He points to the disparity, for example, between the U.S. and Indonesian forest product mills, stressing that, where those in the US are largely very old, require huge amounts of capital investment, and have a comparatively costly workforce, the newer mills in Indonesia are state of the art.
Lawson says “with this growing global presence, comes environmental and social responsibility. APRIL is under pressure to both improve its sustainability practices and improve transparency. I’m confident this will happen. APRIL management appears to be committed and, frankly, external stakeholders will demand it”.
“But progress is slow,” he says. Illegal land conversion and encroachment continue to be an immediate and pressing issue for Indonesia. To combat this, his belief is that business and affected stakeholders must continue to work with government, and identify ways to more effectively control unsustainable land use conversion.
On the wider global front, Lawson is also optimistic. “Reinforced by vastly improved communication, including social media, the next generation has a much more global perspective of issues than my generation had”. He sees the next generation as the one that will take up the lessons learned by his, in which environmentalism was born and came into its adolescence. “I think our kids will kick-start a new and more radical process,” he says. “My guess is policy direction and decisions will be driven more by independent thinking, and less by pressure from long established organizations. I believe the pace will pick up, and a new generation will show that technology, science and new thinking can enable natural systems to flourish alongside economic benefit”.