Monday 28 September 2015

Exercise consumer power to fight the haze

By Ang Peng Hwa, Published The Straits Times, 26 Sep 2015

The ongoing and unhealthy level of the smoke haze from Indonesia poses questions we have to answer: Are the strategies we have been using to fight the haze failing? And if they are not, what else can we do?

When a friend asked me those questions recently, I replied: "It looks like our strategies are not working, but actually, without them, the haze we are experiencing will be even worse. We should keep the strategies we have but realise that as those responsible are morphing and adapting, so we need to morph and adapt our strategies."

I agree with my colleague Euston Quah ("When the haze doesn't go away"; The Straits Times, Tuesday) that fighting the haze will cost us money and time. However, in one crucial area, I disagree with him.

Unlike Professor Quah, I believe consumers need to boycott the paper and palm oil that are being produced by recalcitrant offenders and we need to sue the Singapore companies involved.

We should note that although it is not called a boycott, consumers are already avoiding palm oil, if they can help it. Try looking for palm oil on our supermarket shelves. None can be found. In contrast to olive oil producers, who are proud to tout their family name, palm oil producers are embarrassed by their product. So they label their product as "vegetable oil" or "mixed vegetable oil".

If consumers are avoiding palm oil, why is there still global demand?

Well, global demand is driven by the widespread use of palm oil by large companies in a wide range of products. If you used lipstick or toothpaste this morning, you may have used palm oil.

The product is so widely used in so many products that the largest global buyer, Nestle, is responsible for just 4 per cent of global demand. This small percentage means demand for palm oil is spread among many companies. This makes it difficult to quickly dampen demand by targeting a few large companies. Any strategy to target companies that use palm oil has to be multi-pronged.

There are a few other reasons we have to act as consumers.

First, the interventions by both the public and private sectors have failed. The public sector has failed, and not for want of trying. The initial strategies in fact were to look to governments, regional cooperation and international agencies to defeat the haze. But they have not got very far. The Asean Transboundary Haze Pollution Agreement signed by all Asean members in 2002 was ratified by Indonesia in September last year, 12 years later.

The private sector is conflicted.

In 2013, a group of us, led by a former chief executive of a large listed company, put together a statement for business to endorse, and thereby take a stance against the unsustainable practice of burning to clear land. The move met with some success until it encountered resistance from those who have extensive business interests in the plantation sector and in Indonesia.

Second, consumer boycotts are a tried and tested way of getting companies to improve their practices. I started a Facebook group, Haze Elimination Action Team (H.E.A.T.), to mobilise consumers. One of its objectives is to fight the haze through consumer boycotts. True, to be more effective, we need to work across borders and target the large companies. We also need consumer education. So we need to press forward on those fronts.

Singapore's Transboundary Haze Pollution Act was expected to drive large companies to mask their illegal activities using smaller firms. Amid the current haze, the self-regulatory body Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) has said that up until Aug 24, none of its 600 or so plantation members had fires in their land concessions.

While this is a laudable achievement, fires have since been found on the land of some of those who supply palm oil to the RSPO members. Again, this is where our strategy must adapt to look at the palm oil supply chain and prevent "irresponsible palm oil" from being sold.

The Act has apparently caused some companies to put out feelers about relocating their corporate domicile away from Singapore to avoid being prosecuted and sued. This suggests that the law is taken seriously but that we need to adapt our strategy.

What can consumers do?

For paper, our offices should use only those that are sustainably sourced and not simply ask for three quotations and buy from the cheapest supplier. Government offices and large organisations can show the way. It makes no sense to save money on office paper and spend much more on healthcare.

Finally, there is one big reason we should aim to do something. No matter how seemingly feeble our attempt may appear to be, to do nothing is to encourage the burning to continue every year. In fact, the rather lackadaisical attitude of Singaporeans when the Pollutant Standards Index was in the 100 to 200 range suggests that we have begun to accept the burning. The companies rely on this - hoping that we will forget about the haze once burning season is over. To accept the haze, however, is tantamount to condoning the burning practices. It means choosing to do nothing and quite literally die from the haze over time.

Singaporeans should not think we are losing in the war against haze producers.

It is the other guy who is backpedalling. Let us keep pushing.

The writer is a professor at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information, Nanyang Technological University and a vice-president of the Consumers Association of Singapore.

The haze situation looks set to become one of the worst on record. Experts warn that it could persist through the month...
Posted by Inconvenient Questions on Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Singaporeans intensify fight against haze
By Melody Zaccheus, The Sunday Times, 27 Sep 2015

From a campaign to get people to buy environmentally friendly palm oil products, to dragging companies responsible for fires in Indonesia to court - Singaporeans are intensifying their fight against the haze.

A campaign to get consumers here to buy green products has collected more than 6,800 of the 50,000 signatures it hopes to get.

The aim is to send a message to companies that consumers insist on clean air and the use of sustainable sources, according to the organisers - the World Wide Fund for Nature Singapore, the People's Movement to Stop Haze (PM Haze), and the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.

The Government has announced that sustainability will be a bigger factor in its procurement process.To put this in...
Posted by People's Movement to Stop Haze on Sunday, September 27, 2015

PM Haze had a booth at yesterday's EarthFest event at the Marina Barrage, and collected more than 100 signatures. More importantly, its volunteers got a chance to spread its message.

Volunteer Jeremias Kuay, 24, a fresh graduate, said: "People seem to be very concerned about the haze. They approached us asking what they can do as an average consumer to help stop the haze. One way to start is by switching to brands that use sustainable palm oil."

Palm oil can be found in many products such as shampoos and instant noodles. One of the main reasons for the haze is the large-scale land clearing for the production of palm oil and paper in Indonesia.

Yesterday, the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) readings dipped to a 24-hour reading ranging between 85 and 102 at 5pm, which is in the high end of the moderate range and the low end of the unhealthy range - which was good news for EarthFest's organiser - chemistry teacher Michael Broadhead, 32.

Almost 10,000 visitors attended the event which featured 85 booths, some of which highlighted a range of green issues.

Mr Broadhead, who spent $6,000 on the event in collaboration with national water agency PUB, said: "People are now drawing the connection that the haze is being caused by palm oil and paper companies, some of which are Singapore-based."

Dr Ang Peng Hwa from Nanyang Technological University and his volunteer group, Haze Elimination Action Team, are planning to sue and boycott companies responsible for the haze-causing fires.

They are looking for groups which have incurred losses of a few thousand dollars, such as hotels and tour agencies which had bookings cancelled, to sue these firms.

Five companies were linked to the fires, said Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Vivian Balakrishnan last Friday. The Transboundary Haze Pollution Act passed in Parliament last year makes errant companies liable for civil claims.

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