Forest-friendly shopping

Like deserts and Arctic wastes, tropical rainforests tend to inspire a feeling of awe in those who visit them. However, unlike these other sparse environments, the majestic forests girdling the Equator represent incredible concentrations of biodiversity, containing more than half of the world’s plant and animal species.

Inside a rainforest, the first impression is one of darkness, a result of shade from the dense tree cover. A complex ecosystem extends from the emergent layer, a top storey that is often home to butterflies, bats and monkeys, down to the forest floor with its fast-decaying plant and animal matter.

Other inhabitants include millions of tribal peoples who have been living close to nature in rainforests for millennia and have devised a way of meeting their needs without destroying their home. The long-term future of many of these indigenous tribes remains under threat from a range of development pressures.

For the Western world, the importance of rainforests is becoming increasingly obvious, with about a quarter of all modern pharmaceuticals derived from rainforest ingredients. A less self-interested motivation is the protection of this rich, diverse web for future generations. In the words of John Seed from the Lismore-based Rainforest Information Centre, “The rainforests are worth preserving because they exist.”

Sadly, more than half of the rainforests have already disappeared, representing a great loss to the world. Regrowth forests do not have the same biodiversity as largely undisturbed forest, so conservation of what remains should remain the top priority.

Deforestation and an alternative

Nearly all rainforests are found in the developing world, often in countries characterised by fast-growing populations and widespread poverty. The per-capita carbon footprint is low but is pushed upwards by the CO2 emissions associated with deforestation. Recent decades have seen a shift away from subsistence farming as the primary driver of rainforest loss towards large-scale and often unsustainable industries, including timber and beef.

In the Amazon Basin, the world’s largest expanse of rainforest, one common scenario is for a logging company to create roads through the forest, facilitating the incursion of poor landless squatters who are too preoccupied with survival to worry about environmental damage. As rainforests have poor soils, these subsistence plots are quickly exhausted, prompting “slash and burn” farmers to move on to another patch.

Fortunately, there is one solution that could potentially halt this cycle. Investigations in the Amazon have identified large areas where the soil is rich in a charcoal known as terra preta, believed to have been added by a vanished civilisation hundreds of years ago to enhance the soil’s fertility. Its modern equivalent, biochar, is created via the low-temperature combustion of organic matter and has a net carbon-negative effect when added to the soil.

Consumer power

A small number of products and ingredients is associated with rainforest loss and, in some cases, discerning consumers can take matters into their own hands.

Palm oil

Over the past few years, the disappearance of rainforests for palm oil plantations has become a cause célèbre among environmentalists. Dominated by Indonesia and Malaysia, the industry is expanding quickly and threatens the survival of the orangutan. This endangered great ape is now restricted to the islands of Sumatra and Borneo, and numbers are believed to be falling steadily.

In part, this deforestation is driven by affluent nations’ demands for palm oil in food and personal care products. (Another significant share of oil production is turned into biodiesel, particularly in Southeast Asia; however, this does not appear to be the case for any of the biodiesel sold in Australia and New Zealand.)

Despite some arguments that small farmers would lose out from a boycott, a limited-scale consumer campaign will merely slow the headlong rate at which new plantations are being established. Anyone interested in avoiding palm oil should ask companies about the “vegetable oil” in their products, check with takeaway outlets which oil they use for frying and hunt down soap made with alternative oils such as coconut and olive.

In 2004, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was formed as a multi-stakeholder forum involving growers, commodity traders, food manufacturers and retailers. However, to its most vocal critics, it’s little more than an exercise in greenwashing. The GreenPalm oil endorsed by the RSPO involves certificates that can be traded, so there’s no way of knowing whether the oil in a particular product is sustainable or not.


Soya grown in the southern parts of Brazil is largely exported to Europe and China, often to become animal feed. The US commodities giant Cargill plays a central role in the industry. In 2006, Greenpeace issued its report Eating up the Amazon, confirming that some of Brazil’s soya had been grown on recently deforested land.

In response, the Brazilian soya industry agreed on a moratorium covering production in recently forested areas. However, the indirect impacts of soya are harder to avoid; by moving into savannah areas, the crop is effectively pushing the large beef producers into the rainforests.

Soya ingredients from Brazil are liable to be sourced from genetically modified beans and may be found in food products sold in Australia and New Zealand.

Beef and leather

As Brazil becomes a major player in the global beef industry, the rainforest is under growing pressure, with cattle ranching considered responsible for an estimated 80 per cent of all forest loss. Last year, Greenpeace completed an extensive investigation into the industry. After a detailed analysis of the Brazilian meat and leather supply chains, it concluded that some was raised on farms linked to illegal deforestation.

The release of the Greenpeace investigation quickly yielded dramatic results. A World Bank loan was withdrawn, several supermarkets suspended their contracts, and beef executives were arrested in police raids. Several big-name footwear manufacturers, including Clarks, Adidas, Nike and Timberland, all demanded rainforest-friendly leather from their suppliers. Last October, the four largest players in Brazilian beef began a moratorium on the purchase of product from newly deforested areas.

Because of unspecified country-of-origin labelling rules, it’s possible that Brazilian beef may find its way into meat products sold in Australia and New Zealand. The best solution is to choose a product with its country of origin clearly stated. While the origin of leather is harder to track down without making enquiries, vegan footwear made from natural and synthetic materials is available, albeit at a higher price.

Timber and timber products

Global demand for wood continues to rise, with both China and India in particular pushing demand. Tropical timber available in Australia may well have been unsustainably harvested and, without any credible third party certification, it’s probably safest to assume this is the case.

A significant chunk of tropical logging activities are illegal, with hotspots for this activity including Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, Liberia and Cameroon. Greenpeace has concluded that many of the timber products made in China are produced from illegal timber imports. Although Australia still allows illegally harvested timber into the country, Labor has recently indicated that it may honour its election promise by banning it.

One useful resource for consumers is the Good Wood Guide, a resource created by Greenpeace. It actively encourages people to buy recycled timber or products that have been certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).

However, the FSC has been criticised by the activist network EcoEarth for endorsing the logging of old-growth tropical rainforests and, perhaps significantly, support for the certifying body has been withdrawn by Friends of the Earth in the UK. In Norway, the government has taken the significant step of banning the use of all tropical timber in public buildings.

Another type of product endorsed in the Good Wood Guide is what is known as ecotimber. This is sourced from small-scale community-controlled forestry operations in Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. The community carries out its own sustainable logging using low-impact techniques, and with the subsequent value-adding, it earns between four and 10 times what it would have received from logging alone.


The paper industry is associated with an increasing level of rainforest destruction but, fortunately, environmentally sound options exist. As a rule of thumb, the best consumer choice is to hunt down a product with the highest possible “post-consumer” recycled content. Among copier paper, 100 per cent post-consumer brands include Evolve and Steinbeis.

In 2007, Woolworths received adverse publicity when it emerged that the company’s Select toilet paper featuring “sustainable forest fibre” labelling was supplied by Asia Pulp and Paper (APP), a Singaporean company that has been accused of illegal logging. A recent report by Indonesia’s Centre for International Forestry Research stated that APP sources 60–70 per cent of its wood from native forests in Sumatra. Under pressure, Woolworths later decided to follow the office retailer Staples and the US chains Office Depot and Wal-Mart by cutting its ties with APP.

Brazil nuts — a good purchase

Brazil nut trees grow in healthy primary Amazon Basin rainforest and attempts at monoculture plantations have so far failed to produce economically viable crops. The reason for this is their dependence on the orchid bee as a pollinator.

In the rainforest, the Brazil nut tree relies on the agouti, a large rodent native to South America. Only agoutis have jaws that are strong enough to break open the tough pods, releasing the nuts inside. While some of these are eaten, others are buried and may later sprout into young trees.

The purchase of these nuts provides a continuing economic benefit in rainforest areas while contributing to the forest’s conservation. They should ideally be packaged to protect against oxidation of the oil content, making them crunchy rather than chewy. Brazil nuts also have the advantage of being the richest food source of the important antioxidant mineral, selenium.

Forests and the carbon link

Neither Indonesia nor Brazil are highly industrialised countries. Yet, because of the contribution made by their loss of primary rainforest, Indonesia is ranked as the world’s number three emitter of carbon emissions and Brazil comes in fourth. Some rainforests grow on land covered by tropical peat, which after deforestation further boosts climate change by emitting both CO2 and methane.

Cutting down forests is estimated to be responsible for about 20 per cent of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions, far more than the share attributed to all forms of transport combined. Among the flaws in the Kyoto Protocol, one was to allocate no carbon value to native forests, allowing them to be destroyed so that carbon credits could be earned when plantation forests were created in their place.

A new buzzword that has been recently gaining currency is “avoided deforestation”. Under a new UN program known as REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation), rich countries would effectively pay poor countries to leave their rainforests standing, ideally an amount greater than what they could earn by felling them.

At the time of writing, the world is gearing up for important climate change talks in Copenhagen aimed at hammering out the successor to the Kyoto agreement. Although it seems inevitable that forests will be on the negotiating table, proposals that hope to tie REDD to new global carbon trading proposals have already become controversial.

REDD and avoided deforestation are receiving support from numerous quarters, including countries with extensive forest cover, some environment groups, the UN, Prince Charles and the UK’s climate change secretary, Ed Miliband. However, the international policing agency Interpol has warned that REDD initiatives could be taken over by criminal gangs. Friends of the Earth International believes the program is at risk of abuse from corrupt politicians and illegal logging companies.

Further complicating matters is the effect of climate change on rainforests. In 2005, the Amazon Basin became a net carbon emitter due to the effects of drought. Although the science is still fairly fuzzy, rainforests can no longer be trusted as reliable carbon sinks, as was once thought.

A depressing and worrying study by the UK’s Hadley Centre has found that a modest global temperature rise (which is generally considered inevitable) would lead to a loss of about one-third of the remaining Amazon Basin rainforest cover, while a rise of four degrees (which is anticipated by 2050 unless carbon cuts are made) would lead to up to 85 per cent loss. This would come about through a negative cycle, where reduced rainfall intensifies drought, which in turn leads the forest to generate less rainfall.

Multi-use reserves

After decades of experience, the traditional model for rainforest conservation in poor countries is now largely seen as a failure. If rainforest land is locked away and local people are prevented from entering it, they will have no economic incentive to preserve the forest.

A more recently developed concept is the multi-use reserve and one example of this model is the Manu National Park in Peru. This type of reserve contains a set of concentric zones, with the greatest level of human activity on the edges and the largely undisturbed inner zones set aside for indigenous peoples.

The outer zone could accommodate the presence of local populations, enabling them to achieve sustainable yields from fruits, nuts, oils and medicinal plants, while ecotourism would be another possibility worth considering. In a rainforest, ecotourist facilities would need to be sensitive to their surroundings and well thought out or there could be a destructive impact. Numbers of ecotourists would need to be kept within a limit.

Unlike some reserves where human pressures steadily encroach on the fringes, in a multi-use reserve the presence of people and their economic needs could instead be harnessed as a way for the rainforests to be expanded in size.

Protecting Australian rainforest

Efforts to save rainforests are not limited to less developed countries. Australia’s own rainforest belt is located between Cooktown and Townsville in Far North Queensland. While much of this Wet Tropics World Heritage Area is protected, some of it is not. On the edge of the Daintree National Park, some blocks that are for sale are home to species such as the cassowary and Bennett’s tree-kangaroo.

Over the past few years, a group known as Rainforest Rescue has been buying up blocks to create a wildlife corridor between two isolated areas of the national park. In the Cape Tribulation area, the group is one step ahead of the bulldozers, recently saving a block in a precinct that had been zoned “rainforest residential” by the local council. To support these conservation projects, Rainforest Rescue accepts donations from the public and also sells gift cards.


  • Wet Tropics World Heritage Area

  • Rainforest Rescue

  • The Rainforest Site

  • Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil

  • Palm Oil Action

  • Forest Stewardship Council

  • FSC-Watch

  • Greenpeace Good Wood Guide

  • UN REDD site

Martin Oliver is a writer and researcher based in Lismore, northern NSW.

Martin Oliver

Martin Oliver

Martin Oliver writes for several Australian holistic publications including WellBeing on a range of topics, including environmental issues. He believes that the world is going through a major transition and he is keen to help birth a peaceful, cooperative and sustainable reality.

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