Your purchases impact rainforests.
Rainforests are magical places, home to an astounding amount of biodiversity. They are also critical to maintaining a stable climate in the face of climate change. But despite their importance, rainforests around the world are being cut down or burned to make way for agriculture, mining, and development.
Once driven mostly by local subsistence farming, rainforest destruction is now increasingly caused by globalized corporate agriculture. This means that many products you see on the shelf at the grocery store may have contributed to deforestation in some of the most precious and ecologically important ecosystems on Earth! To help consumers avoid these harmful products, the TREE foundation has created the following guide to shopping rainforest-friendly.
Read on to learn about how you can help rainforests simply by changing your shopping habits. You’ll find it is easy to use your purchasing power for good!
SECTION I: General tips
A lot of products come from tropical areas, and it can be very difficult to figure out which ones are rainforest-friendly and which ones are not. Below are some general tips for how to shop in a way that benefits rainforests (and the rest of the planet too!) without getting too much into the weeds about specific product markets.
1. Buy local—avoid tropical products altogether!
Buying local food has many benefits—it reduces carbon dioxide emissions from transporting food, builds climate resilience into the food system, and supports local agriculture. But “buying local” is good for rainforests too: unless you live in the tropics, the food grown in your area does not do much harm to rainforests when it is produced. Even if you can’t buy all your food from the farmers market, you can avoid many foods grown in the tropics. Maybe skip the bananas and pineapples and buy apples and oranges instead! This is an easy way to have an immediate impact.
2. Shop at farmers markets, co-ops, and health food stores
Shop where it is easier to be environmentally-friendly. Unlike large grocery chains, co-ops, farmers markets, and health food stores offer a variety of local, organic, and eco-conscious food options. They are great places to look for Rainforest Alliance certified products and other products that don’t harm rainforests. They offer healthier, higher-quality, local, and less-processed alternatives to the traditional supermarket.
Find a food co-op near you
Find a farmers market near you
On a budget?
Many retailers and grocery stores have recognized the value of offering healthy food at affordable prices in order to combat the national emergency of obesity and the local and regional prevalence of food deserts. TREE Foundation does not endorse commercial enterprises but research has shown that Aldi, Walmart, Costco, MarketBasket, Trader Joe’s, and a few other chains are increasingly focused on making healthy and eco-friendly foods available to all urban, suburban, and rural areas. So, if locally grown products are not readily available to you, check some of your larger budget and eco-friendly options in your area.
3. Avoid processed foods
Processed foods are terrible for you—stuffed full of fat and sugar and devoid of nutritious ingredients. They’re where all the lowest quality, most environmentally-damaging food ingredients end up. Your body and your planet will thank you for switching to more wholesome alternatives like healthy grains, vegetables, and other direct-from-the-Earth staples. Lots of palm oil goes into processed products, so reducing your consumption of processed foods will benefit the rainforests of Southeast Asia (as long as you don’t replace all the palm oil fat with vegetable fats from other sources—read more in the palm oil section of this guide). It can be intimidating to switch from eating finished food products to making your own food using raw ingredients—especially for people who are not used to meal prepping—but you’ll soon fall in love with the art of cooking and the delicious food that comes from using good ingredients.
Why you should eat real food
4. Eat a plant-based diet
Animal products have an outsize environmental impact per calorie delivered. Animals require large amounts of feed over their lifetimes, meaning land must be used for pasture or for growing feed crops like corn and soy. If we ate less meat, this land could be used to feed humans or could be restored to its natural state. Animal waste is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions also. Unsurprisingly, eating lots of meat and dairy is bad for your health—just think of all the excess calories and fat you are consuming, and how much vegetable nutrition you are missing out on. You don’t have to become vegan—any reduction in consumption helps. Switching from beef to other forms of plant or animal protein is the most effective way to start. Beef is the most resource-intensive to produce and results in far more rainforest deforestation than any other product. There are many delicious meat alternatives and plant-based proteins out there—you should give them a try!
Plant-based diet beginner’s guide
Health benefits of a plant-based diet
Read more about the environmental impact of eating meat
Plant-based meat alternatives are delicious!
5. Look for certifications like Rainforest Alliance and Forest Stewardship Council
Certifications are little logos on many products you buy that communicate information about the way that a product was produced or identifies its ingredients. A food can be certified organic, for example, if it is not produced with pesticides or other synthetic chemicals. Certifications are given by organizations that review the supply chains of the product to make sure the company is conforming to the standards set by that certification. Each certification is different, and the standards for how the product must be produced vary between certifications. Some have lax rules that are easy for companies to conform to, and others have more stringent requirements that make it more difficult for a company to “earn” the certification. Look for the certifications recommended in Section II of this guide when you shop.
List of common certifications and what they mean
Diets for climate change
Concerned about climate change? We are too! After reading this guide, you know how to shop rainforest-friendly. But how about shopping climate-friendly? Luckily, most of the things you can do to help rainforests will also help slow climate change. Just eat local, less-processed foods and stick to a diet of mostly plants. That’s it! Another bonus: your body will thank you for the delicious and nutritious changes you make to you eating habits.
SECTION II: Certifications
The Rainforest Alliance certification is found on a variety of products of tropical origin. The seal indicates that the product is sourced from producers committed to rainforest-friendly production methods. Because they certify a wide variety of products, the Rainforest Alliance doesn’t use a single standard for all their products. Instead, they use standards they have developed or borrowed from other sustainability organizations. The Rainforest Alliance certification does not have particularly strict standards for “rainforest-friendliness,” but the frog seal is still a good indicator that the product you are buying is better for rainforests than the alternatives.
What does Rainforest Alliance Certified mean?
Forest Stewardship Council
The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certifies that wood products come from sustainable sources and do not result in deforestation. Though products with the FSC label are more sustainable than those without, the organization has been plagued with scandals and there is sizable corporate influence from the wood products industry in its governing body. Nevertheless, it is considered the best major certification for wood products out there.
Criticisms of FSC
Sustainable Forestry Initiative
The Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) certifies wood products as well. It is considered less stringent than the FSC certification, and it only certifies timber sourced from the United States and Canada. This means that no SFI-certified products come from tropical rainforests. However, we still recommend buying FSC-certified products if possible.
Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO)
The RSPO has been criticized as a largely ineffective, corporate-driven certification program that does little to combat rainforest destruction. In fact, many people view it as a “greenwashing” scheme to sell palm oil by marketing it as sustainable. Nevertheless, RSPO does not allow plantations to cut down primary forests and highly biodiverse areas (though Greenpeace claims the rules are not enforced). RSPO-certified products containing palm oil are not really sustainable, but it is arguably better than the non-certified palm oil. The best ways to make a difference are to avoid processed foods, therefore reducing your overall fat intake, download the sustainable palm oil shopping app, and to donate to organizations fighting to make palm oil more sustainable. Read more about the problems with palm oil in the Section III of this guide.
Bird-Friendly certified coffee
This certification, developed and maintained by the Smithsonian National Zoo, is a stringent certification standard for coffee. If you see this certification on your coffee beans, it means that the coffee was grown under a biodiverse canopy of shade trees that maintain crucial habitat for tropical birds and other species. It is also certified organic, and buying Bird-Friendly coffee supports the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center’s conservation research and research into bird- friendly coffee production methods.
Read more about Bird-Friendly certified coffee and where to find it
SECTION III: Worst products for rainforests (and what you can do)
Beef is by far the most destructive product for rainforests. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, cows result in twice as much deforestation as the next three largest drivers of deforestation (palm oil, soy, and wood products) combined. In the Amazon rainforest, trees are often cleared to make way for cattle grazing. In addition, cows emit large amounts of methane (a potent greenhouse gas) from their digestive systems, making them a significant contributor to climate change. Animal products are a relatively inefficient use of our food resources, as a large amount of land is used to grow animal food which could be used instead to grow food for people. Beef is the most resource-intensive meat to produce.
If you are open to the idea of replacing your beef burger with chicken, turkey, or meat alternatives, why not ditch beef altogether? Many other protein sources are just as delicious and healthier for you and the environment. If you can’t do without beef, try to eat it less often and serve smaller portions. Look for local, grass-fed beef when you shop. Doing this helps you avoid buying beef that has been raised on cleared rainforest land or has eaten crops such as soy and corn that were grown on previously-forested land.
Beef’s impact on deforestation
Beef: the worst food for climate change
The oil of the oil palm has taken the food industry by storm in recent decades—its properties make it perfect for a wide variety of uses, and it can be produced cheaply due to the incredible productivity of its source plant. Because it is in basically everything, massive and growing global demand for palm oil has resulted in widespread deforestation in the tropical regions where it grows. Southeast Asian rainforests like those in Indonesia have been razed to make way for sprawling plantations of oil palms, threatening endangered species like the orangutan and the Sumatran rhino.
Palm oil presents a serious dilemma for conservation—even though it drives rainforest clearing, it takes much less land area to produce a given amount of palm oil than any other type of food oil. This means that switching to other sources of oil will likely increase deforestation. To make an impact, try to avoid processed foods (this will decrease demand for palm oil and will also lower the fat content in your diet) and look for Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) certified palm oil products when you shop. Unfortunately, most palm oil-derived products (including many products not found in food) are not labeled as palm oil, making it nearly impossible to know whether there is palm oil in what you are buying. You can change this by demanding that companies label their products and buy sustainable palm oil. Sign an online petition or make a donation to an organization fighting against deforestation due to palm oil production.
How the world got hooked on palm oil
How palm oil affects rainforests—and what you can do
Download the sustainable palm oil shopping app!
Which companies should you buy from? Check out the WWF Palm Oil Buyers Scorecard
Though many people know of soy as the primary ingredient in tofu and other plant-protein products, most soy is actually used to produce animal feed. Therefore, when you buy meat products you are also contributing to the demand for soy. Somewhat ironically, this means that buying tofu as an alternative to meat may actually reduce your soy consumption! Buy less meat to reduce the impact that soy has on rainforest destruction in Brazil and other areas.
Read more about soy’s deforestation impact
The manufacture of wood products is responsible for 10 percent of deforestation worldwide. This includes wood harvested for timber as well as paper products. Logging is particularly destructive for rainforests not only because it directly causes deforestation but also because it creates roads. Roads tend to bring development and agriculture to a region, leading to additional rainforest destruction.
If you can reduce your demand for wood products, do so—for example, don’t buy tropical hardwoods like mahogany—and try to reduce your paper use. Recycling is important, as is buying recycled products such as recycled toilet paper. When you have to buy wood products, look for the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification.
Read about the impacts of wood products on the world’s rainforests
Cocoa production encroaches on the highly biodiverse rainforests of west Africa, many of which have already been destroyed. Luckily, it is relatively easy to find sustainably-sourced cocoa products, especially if you shop at food co-ops, some grocery chains, and health food stores. Just look for the Rainforest Alliance certification seal.
This is where your chocolate is coming from—learn about the exploitative and environmentally-destructive cocoa farming practices in west Africa
Everyone loves coffee, but growing worldwide demand has led to negative environmental consequences. Coffee naturally flourishes under a canopy of trees, but the coffee industry has been shifting to sun-tolerant varieties in recent decades due to its higher yield. Shade-grown coffee, unlike sun-grown, preserves forest canopies, allowing a much greater world of biodiversity to flourish. Even shade-grown coffee has environmental impacts—if you can, try foregoing coffee altogether—but otherwise look for shade grown, organic, and fair trade coffee products. Bird Friendly Coffee (a certification by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center) is the best certification, followed by the Rainforest Alliance certification. And, while you’re at it, reduce your waste by using a reusable mug at the café, or tote some homebrew to work in your thermos.
A guide to coffee certifications
Where to buy Bird Friendly Coffee
The environmental impact of your coffee habit
Almost all of the world’s rubber production occurs in Asia, particularly in the warmer, wetter southeastern regions. The increase in demand for rubber, as well as the development of varieties that can grow in previously-unsuitable climates, has led to rubber tree plantations displacing native forest cover across the region. The impact of rubber can be lessened by growing it as part of an agroforestry system (which maintains much greater levels of biodiversity than monocropping) but it usually is not. Avoid buying rubber when you don’t need to, and look for rubber that comes from other natural sources if possible.
Read about environmentally-friendly tire manufacturers
Brazil exports a lot of corn, and much of Brazil’s corn production comes from regions near, or sometimes in, the Amazon rainforest. These regions are ecologically diverse in their own right, and corn production, which is often rotated with soy production, often displaces pastureland, forcing cattle farmers further into the Amazon rainforest. Eventually, corn producers take over these newly-deforested regions, forcing pastureland to encroach even further. Most corn grown in Brazil does not make it onto our plates directly but instead goes into animal feed. Therefore, the best way to stop corn and soy from deforesting the Amazon rainforest is to cut down on your meat consumption.
Production of sugarcane, like soy and corn, can lead to deforestation. Brazil is the world’s leading producer of sugarcane, which is mostly used for biofuel and sugar production. Sugarcane usually does not lead directly to deforestation, but it can take over pastureland, forcing cattle ranchers into the rainforest. If you can, find alternatives to cane sugar, such as the sugar from sugar beets, which are not grown in tropical areas. Look for certifications from the Rainforest Alliance as well. Of course, the most effective way to minimize sugar’s impact on rainforests (and your health!) is simply to cut down on your sugar intake. Try to eat less-processed foods without added sugar and avoid sugary drinks like soda.
Coca—the plant used to make cocaine—results in rainforest destruction in northern and western South America where it is grown. Cultivation tends to occur in remote mountain and forest regions, where the plant grows well and where it is easier to evade authorities. Still, producers must move around frequently to keep ahead of the law, which results in large areas of rainforest being illegally cleared. Without legalization and government regulation schemes in both producing and consuming countries, there can really be no such thing as sustainable, or ethical, cocaine. Besides, cocaine addiction is a major problem in much of the world and a lot of the revenue from the sale of cocaine is used to fund violent cartel activity. Next time you’re at a party, maybe just have another beer.
Read about deforestation and pollution due to cocaine production
It may be beautiful, but gold has an appalling environmental and human rights record. Fifty percent of gold comes from indigenous lands, and gold mining is a major cause of rainforest destruction. Mining results in road construction (which leads to further development in forest regions), rainforest clearing, and cyanide and mercury poisoning. A lot of gold is mined illegally, but even legal gold mining often uses exploitative labor practices. There are a lot of sustainable alternatives to the traditional gold wedding ring, but if you’re set on buying gold, look for certified eco-friendly, certified ethical, or certified recycled gold (check out this handy guide to learn the differences between these types of certifications). Certifications for eco-friendly gold are Fairmined Ecological Gold and Fairtrade Ecological Gold; certifications for ethical gold are Fairmined Gold and Fairtrade Gold; and recycled gold has the Green Circle Certification.
Mining and oil extraction
Oil extraction and mining have devastating environmental impacts where they occur. They can pollute and poison waterways, exploit workers, clear land, and lead to development through the building of roads, settlements, and other infrastructure. It is very difficult to know where the raw materials produced through mining in rainforests end up, as they are incorporated in a variety of products whose manufacturers often do not know or disclose the origin of the materials used. The best way to combat rainforest mining is to urge companies to refuse to buy products derived from rainforests. You can also support organizations that fight rainforest destruction due to mining and oil extraction.
How mining affects rainforests
Impacts of oil extraction
CONCLUSION: Our food system needs to change!
It’s not easy to shop sustainably—even for informed consumers.
Companies rarely provide transparency about the origins of the materials in their products, meaning consumers have very little idea of the environmental impacts of the things they are buying. Globalized corporate capitalism has cursed us with long supply chains and intense global competition for the lowest price, regardless of environmental and social consequences. Product quality has suffered and the nutritional value of food has eroded as a result.
Rainforest destruction increasingly happens in order to produce commodities that are sold in places far from their origin—bought by people who are not told about the negative impacts of their purchasing.
To save rainforests, we must fight for food justice.
Though individual choices matter, it is not enough for a few conscientious consumers to alter their shopping habits—to preserve rainforests, solve global warming, and create fair working and living conditions around the world, our whole system for producing goods, especially agricultural products, needs be radically transformed. We must replace conventional agriculture with ecologically-sensitive farming practices. We must break the iron grip of giant agribusiness corporations on our food system, transitioning to a system of local producers who build relationships with the communities they serve. We must reject highly-processed foods with low-quality ingredients of unknown origin and make healthy, wholesome, and sustainable food available at low cost to everyone. Transforming our food system and the rest of our carbon-intensive, environmentally-destructive economy requires political action as well as changes in personal choices. Join the fight for a fair, nutritious, and sustainable food system today! Find a food justice organization near you, or just get to know your local farmer. Read more about sustainable agriculture issues below.
Read more about structural problems within our food system
What is sustainable agriculture?
What is food justice?
How to build sustainable food systems
Book recommendation: Stuffed And Starved: Markets, Power And The Hidden Battle For The World Food System by Raj Patel
Book recommendation: Nourished Planet: Sustainability in the Global Food System by Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition, Danielle Nierenberg (Editor)
Created by Evan Wright on July 27, 2020