Haze helps SEC spark a green chain reaction

Singapore Environment Council executive director Edwin Seah (left) with SEC eco-certification head Kavickumar Muruganathan. SEC received about a dozen calls from members of the public after the NEA, on Sept 25, said it had served APP a legal notice t
Singapore Environment Council executive director Edwin Seah (left) with SEC eco-certification head Kavickumar Muruganathan. SEC received about a dozen calls from members of the public after the NEA, on Sept 25, said it had served APP a legal notice to supply information about its subsidiaries in Singapore and Indonesia.ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG

Crisis gave environmental body a chance to highlight the value of eco-friendly practices

With a click of the mouse on Sept 30, an electronic form was e-mailed to 17 paper companies carrying the Singapore Environment Council's (SEC) Green Label.

The label signifies that the companies are eco-friendly, and the form was for them to declare that they did not source from alleged haze culprits like Asia Pulp and Paper (APP).

The move by the SEC, a non-governmental organisation, led by a core team of five staff members and a board of 11 directors, triggered a chain reaction.

On Oct 5, it released the names of 10 companies that signed the form. Two days later, it suspended the Green Label of APP's local distributor, Universal Sovereign Trading. By noon on Oct 7, supermarket chain FairPrice began pulling APP products off its shelves. Sheng Siong and Prime Supermarket followed suit.

SEC executive director Edwin Seah said: "When the National Environment Agency named the companies it was investigating, that was the spark. We needed to act fast to protect the credibility of our label. We also wanted to allay consumer fears."

He said the SEC received about a dozen calls from members of the public after the NEA, on Sept 25, said it had served APP a legal notice to supply information about its subsidiaries in Singapore and Indonesia.

"We were surprised at the speed at which things unfolded. After that, we thought, we should keep the momentum going," Mr Seah told The Straits Times.

The SEC went on to send the form to other supermarkets, and to 210 wood-related product makers.

The intensity of the haze, NEA's announcement, and the fact that APP had its green label suspended, gave the SEC an opportunity.

Mr Seah said: "We were at the right place, at the right time. It gave us the chance to push businesses to source more sustainably. Retailers are finally starting to sit up and take notice. We've never got this level of interest before."

The SEC now receives about 10 calls a day from businesses that want to know how to certify their products, up from five previously.

Mr Seah, who joined the SEC in October last year as its communications director, took over as interim executive director in February. He took on his current role in April.

Former SEC chief Jose Raymond stepped down in January to join the Singapore Sports Hub.

By June, Mr Seah and newly appointed members of his core team - assistant executive director Gerard Christopher, head of eco-certification Kavickumar Muruganathan, senior executive for environmental outreach Siti Farhana Mahadi, and director of communications Shirley Chua - had a new focus: consumers and the demand side of sustainability.

Said Mr Seah: "We thought getting consumers involved would trigger the supply side, and manufacturers would become more responsible."

The SEC, funded by corporate sponsorships and income from its certification scheme, will be speaking to each of the businesses that has signed the form - 71, so far - to encourage them to do more.

Mr Seah said the SEC will advocate having green corners or aisles in supermarkets as well as standees to explain sustainability and eco-certification to consumers.

From January, it will also make it compulsory for all its clients with Green Labels - more than 3,000 of them - to print the label on products they sell. Now, only about half do so, for reasons such as costs.

At least one firm, tissue paper supplier Tipex, has asked the SEC to print stickers to paste on its goods.

"They now see the value in it," said Mr Seah, adding that it costs $1,500 to get certified under the Singapore Green Label Scheme, and $1,000 each year to renew it.

The SEC will also start certifying palm oil products soon, and will reach out to firms selling them to come on board. Already, one major chocolate firm here is interested in getting its chocolates certified.

The SEC is also working with the Government on its decision, announced last month, to start buying from more sustainable sources, to influence supply chains.

Mr Seah said the public can expect a more active and engaging SEC in the days to come. However, just as he sees the importance of "striking while the iron is hot", he said change takes time. "It has to come in phases, be long term... We will continue to push on."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 17, 2015, with the headline 'Haze helps SEC spark a green chain reaction'. Print Edition | Subscribe