Image: Pedestrians walk down Fifth Avenue
Spencer Platt  /  Getty Images
The Rainforest Action Network has had some sucess linking Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue to Indonesian rainforests.
updated 10/6/2009 3:00:49 PM ET 2009-10-06T19:00:49

Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue is a world away from the rain forests of Indonesia, yet there’s a direct connection between the two that one environmental group is trying to make clear: fancy shopping bags. Many clothing and luxury brands may be — often unwittingly — sending their customers off with a little slice of obliterated rain forest in addition to their intended purchases. A popular supplier of glossy shopping bags and other packaging, New Hampshire-based Pak 2000 has been closely tied to Asia Pulp and Paper, one of the world’s largest papermakers and a firm many conservation groups have singled out as one of the biggest culprits of tropical deforestation. According to activists, that means the fibers used to make some of those thick and lovely status-symbol parcels may come from endangered rain forest trees, or from biologically bankrupt plantations installed where the lush forest has been cut down.

Yet the tide may be turning. Earlier this year, Rainforest Action Network , an environmental group that works to change corporate behavior, began targeting Pak 2000’s relationship to APP as a way to publicize the scope and impact of deforestation — which is contributing to global warming, putting many species at risk of extinction and destroying the livelihood of indigenous groups. Asia Pulp and Paper has earned a global reputation for slashing and burning Indonesia’s forests to increase its production capacity. APP owns a majority stake in Pak 2000 and is a subsidiary of the Indonesian conglomerate Sinar Mas. “Because Pak 2000 is selling to very high-profile companies, it’s a good place to start our work, to introduce this issue to a new sector, the fashion industry,” said Lafcadio Cortesi, RAN’s forest campaign director and an expert on Indonesian forests.

They certainly got the company’s attention. As of Sept. 24, Pak 2000 had taken down its entire Web site, replacing it with a terse message from the CEO: "Beginning July 30th, 2009 PAK 2000 Inc. was made the object of a deliberate and malicious internet and public relations attack by certain groups purporting to advance environmental causes. Unfortunately such occurrences are no longer rare and unsubstantiated campaigns are made daily across the world. In conjunction with this, our website has suffered numerous attacks. We have decided to temporarily take the site down and expect to have it up again within the next few days."

According to information available on Pak 2000’s Web site before it was taken down, the company, founded in 1972, has sourcing and quality-control offices in Indonesia and China, and production facilities in those countries as well as the United States and Vietnam. According to the New Hampshire Business Review, Pak 2000 grossed $60 million annually in the early part of this decade, producing roughly 300 million bags a year for clients that have included Chanel, Movado, Montblanc, Ralph Lauren, Gucci, and Estee Lauder.

Interviewed last week, William L. Chapman, a lawyer representing Pak 2000, adamantly denied the charges made by RAN and asserted that only 25 percent of the company’s paper comes from Indonesia, with the bulk coming from forests in the United States and Europe. According to Chapman, clients can specify exactly where their paper comes from, down to a specific mill (for instance, one owned by Weyerhauser in Washington state). “RAN made a huge assumption,” said Chapman, “that because we are an affiliate of APP that APP dictates everything we do as it relates to paper. They don’t.” Chapman said Pak 2000 operates as an independent entity with its own board and its own business practices.

Chapman also hinted that Pak 2000 is considering cutting ties with APP. “It’s our majority shareholder, although that I think is going to change very quickly,” he said, declining to elaborate for the time being.

Before dismantling its entire website, Pak 2000 removed its client list, leaving only a dead link where the page used to reside. Nevertheless, photos of some companies’ packaging continued to appear on the site, including bags or boxes for Marc Jacobs, Cartier, Coach, and J.Crew’s CrewCuts brand.

As recently as the Friday before Labor Day, its online list of clients included Barney’s, Coach, Marc Jacobs, J.Crew, and Billabong. Those last two companies, though, said they had already ended their contracts with Pak 2000, well before RAN sent letters to roughly 100 companies they identified as having contracted with Pak 2000. The RAN letters informed companies of the bags’ environmental problems and asked them to switch to sustainable bag suppliers that use fiber certified by the Forest Stewardship Council.

These letters seem to have had an impact. “They’ve really created a donnybrook for us,” said Chapman.

A spokeswoman for J. Crew said that the company doesn’t use Pak 2000 paper, but declined to elaborate. A spokesman for Billabong in Australia said that the company had already “ceased all business with Pak 2000 for normal commercial reasons,” but that it appreciated the opportunity for a “direct dialogue” with RAN on environmental issues.

H&M cancelled a Pak 2000 contract for its Collection of Style brand after receiving the RAN letter. According to an official in Sweden, where the company is based, “H&M have a policy for purchase of wood and wooden products originating from countries with rainforests. We always demand FSC certified products when buying from such countries. In this case this policy seemed to have been violated.” She said that the company was looking for an alternative bag supplier for the line, and would use stockpiled Pak 2000 bags while searching for a vendor “that can guarantee that the origin of the paper is from a sustainable resource.”

A Barney’s official, meanwhile, confirmed that the company buys Pak 2000 bags but did not know whether it planned to switch and did not respond to additional requests for information. RAN is currently in discussions with roughly 20 companies about buying paper from FSC sources.

In May, several conservation organizations, including the World Wildlife Fund and the Frankfurt Zoological Society, joined together to protest efforts by APP and its parent company, the Sinar Mas Group — which is also heavily involved in unsustainable palm oil production — to clear-cut a large portion of vital Sumatra rain forest where 100 orangutans had been relocated after losing their forest homes elsewhere on the island.

Analysis of 2009 satellite data by Eyes on the Forest, a coalition of international and Indonesian environmental and community organizations, found that the largest number of forest and peat swamp fires burning in Riau Province, the site of a new UN biosphere reserve, were on land where APP owned permits to log. Many of the fires were burning within the reserve itself.

Forest Ethics, a nonprofit that issues “Green Grades” report cards on office-products suppliers, judges companies explicitly on whether or not they buy paper from APP. Its recently released 2009 report card praised Staples for cutting ties with APP, and lauded Staples for a “systematic” avoidance of APP paper. (FedEx Office got the highest marks, for using mainly FSC-certified paper. Among paper wholesalers, PaperlinX received an "F" in part for readily buying from APP.)

“They’re expanding plantations,” said RAN’s Cortesi, “and that’s reliant upon degrading or completely clearing and converting natural forest. A bunch of those plantations are on top of peat soils, which they’re draining, and there are huge amounts of carbon emissions from that.” Deforestation contributes a fifth of all greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, and has made Indonesia the world’s third-largest emitter, behind the United States and China. Changing the habits of the paper bag industry may not have a huge impact, but right now few companies want to be associated with that kind of destruction.

Copyright Washington Post.Newsweek Interactive


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