I’m an environmentalist, and I try to make green choices. I take public transportation, recycle and program my thermostat. But the care and keeping of our forests always seemed far removed from my urban self. At least, it did until I visited a coffee farm in the Ecuadorian rain forest. There, I saw firsthand the way copper miners and loggers are destroying the natural environment.
Forests cover 30 percent of the Earth’s land, but they’re disappearing fast. Companies and governments are converting green space into farms and developments; loggers are hacking away trees. Each year, about 50,000 square miles of tropical forests are cleared, the equivalent of 48 football fields a minute. If we continue at this rate, the rain forest will disappear within a century.
Deforestation contributes to biodiversity loss, threatens clean water sources and infringes on the rights of the 1.6 billion people who depend on forests for their livelihoods. It may also cost us important products — from Brazil nuts to the rubber used in condoms to the ingredients for half the prescription drugs we take today. And it’s one of the biggest causes of climate change, responsible for about 15 percent of the carbon to the atmosphere.
As I began researching this problem, I realized that I played a role, since many products lurking in my refrigerator, kitchen cabinets and even shower contained traces of tropical forests that once were. Globally, commercial agriculture drives 71 percent of tropical deforestation, and its major bounties — palm oil, soy, cattle and timber (or pulp), the “big four” — are ubiquitous in household products and everyday foods. Many goods that I buy regularly, from cereal to shampoo to mascara and toilet paper, are potentially tied to deforestation. Palm oil alone is used in about half of all packaged products in supermarkets.
I wanted to get a handle on the scope of the problem and my contribution to it. So I decided to try to buy only products made without ingredients tied to deforestation for one month. I quickly realized that it’s hard to figure out which products are safe — and that it’s nearly impossible to cut deforestation out of your life.
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My first task was sorting out what I could and couldn’t buy. Since there’s no special label or branding for “deforestation-free” products, I decided to avoid anything that contained one of the big four commodities.
Paper was the easiest. I defined “no-deforestation paper” as 100 percent recycled, because that meant no forests were newly cleared to make it. I also allowed myself to buy paper products with the Forest Stewardship Council certification, because that label requires that the product be clearly traceable to a sustainably managed forest. It wasn’t hard to find toilet paper and printer paper that were marked. (It also didn’t cost me any extra — the certified toilet paper I found was actually less expensive than some non–certified brands.)
I also stopped buying food in cardboard packaging because it was too difficult to determine the source of the cardboard. This eliminated a lot of options, including some of my favorite snack foods: cereal, crackers, cookies and macaroni and cheese. But it also introduced me to the bulk-food aisles at natural grocery stores, where I found rice, pasta, nuts and candied ginger, all without cardboard packaging.
Soy was harder. I didn’t think I consumed a lot of soy until I realized that most land-dwelling animals we eat are fed soybean meal. My mom raises chickens at my childhood home in Massachusetts — about as cage-free as they come — and even those lucky ducks eat pellets made of soy.
So for the month, I mostly ate like a vegan, except that I didn’t eat soy-based dairy alternatives or tofu (though some tofu brands are produced in the United States and are deforestation-free). I drank milk from grass-fed cows because it came in a returnable glass bottle and the cows lived nearby. And I ate locally raised, grass-fed beef on two occasions, because it came from a farm that emphasizes sustainability and grows food for its animals on-site. Other than that, my major source of protein over the month was three jars of peanut butter.
Palm oil was by far the most tedious to avoid, especially since it’s the go-to replacement for oils containing trans fat. It’s also the cheapest vegetable oil to produce and has a high melting point, making products that contain it smooth and easily spreadable: useful qualities for both margarine and lotion. To make matters more complicated, palm oil goes by hundreds of different names and is often behind innocuous-sounding ingredients such as “vegetable oil” and “natural flavors.” I began grocery shopping with an A-to-Z list of 224 alternate names for palm oil open on my phone, so I could cross-check. One fateful evening, I read the ingredient lists of every laundry detergent brand at the grocery store and found exactly zero that were palm-oil-free.
Avoiding deforestation-related consumption wasn’t easy. Aside from food and essential hygiene products, I didn’t buy anything new during the month. But even with my limited purchases, I found myself scouring labels aisle by aisle — a chore that accounted for countless hours. And I missed some of my favorite foods, especially as I watched my friends eat omelets or chicken fingers. Once, I found myself moaning after a cheeseburger.
On several occasions, I made mistakes — some more avoidable than others. Once, a co-worker bought chocolate to go around and went out of his way to find a palm-, soy- and dairy-free variety for me. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that the paper wrapping technically made the bar ineligible. Instead, I devoured the chocolate and added the wrapper to my collection of indiscretions: a concert ticket, a paper napkin, a Band-Aid sleeve.
Overall, though, I was diligent about following my rules. I found one acceptable soap brand and used it to wash my hair, my hands, my dishes and my clothes. I stopped wearing makeup and replaced lotion with shea butter. I experimented with vegan cooking (smashed potatoes with avocado dipping sauce were my best creation). When I went to visit my grandmother, I packed a suitcase with my own groceries. And since everyone seems to ask, I did calculate some cold, hard results: I saved $54 on food (I spent more on groceries but stopped eating meals out), and I lost two pounds.
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At the end of my month, I was ready to go back to shopping like a regular person (though I did resolve to eat more locally and minimize packaging waste). I’d proved that a no-deforestation life was possible, but it was painstaking. I was tired of carrying around a long list of things to avoid and frustrated by the way this experiment limited my socializing. More than once, I left a gathering to go home and cook. I was also ready to stop carrying around my own toilet paper.
Additionally, I realized that I shouldn’t focus my consumer activism on reading labels and trying to guess which products are or aren’t sustainable. More important is urging businesses to publicly commit to sourcing deforestation-free commodities. They should also document these efforts in annual or even quarterly reports, so that consumers and nongovernmental organizations can keep tabs.
Already, more than 300 companies have pledged to do this. L’Oréal, for example, has committed to sourcing “zero deforestation” palm oil by 2020; Apple has vowed that its packaging will have “net-zero impact” on virgin forests; Mars has promised that by 2017, all its Brazilian beef will come from suppliers that have not cleared any forests to raise their cattle. Unilever and Marks & Spencer recently said they will try to source their raw materials from places with sound “no-deforestation” policies.
These commitments mark a shift in how companies think about deforestation risk, though it’s hard to know what the long-term impact will be. And meeting these promises is a fairly significant challenge, requiring businesses to understand exactly where and how all their supplies are produced.
Of course, private-sector pledges alone are not enough to reverse deforestation. Companies need the help of governments to create and enforce laws that protect forests. A few state-level governments are ahead of the curve: Central Kalimantan in Indonesia and Sabah in Malaysia, for instance, are working toward 100 percent sustainable palm oil production. In Indonesia, the world’s largest palm oil producer, firms accounting for 80 percent of the country’s production have pledged to stop converting carbon-rich peatlands√ to palm plantations.
In the cattle-raising state of Para, Brazil, many meat–packers have made zero-deforestation agreements with bigger businesses. A recent study showed that these deals did reduce deforestation within a couple of years. And the state of Acre, Brazil, passed a unique law that creates financial incentives for forest conservation.
None of these efforts, on their own, will be enough. Broad, global action is needed to stop deforestation. But just like I learned during my deforestation-free month, every little bit helps.