Saving the World’s Forests From Toilet Paper, Margarine, and Skin Cream

Corporations must uphold their promises to stop using palm oil and pulpwood sourced from deforested lands, says a new report.

(Photo: Nacho Doce/Reuters)

Apr 29, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Emily J. Gertz is an associate editor for environment and wildlife at TakePart.

More than half a million square miles of the world’s forests—an expanse double the size of Texas—may vanish by 2030, and the reasons may be right inside your shopping bag.

Illegal logging, land clearing for livestock, and expansion of palm oil and pulpwood plantations are the major drivers of global forest destruction highlighted in a new report from conservation group World Wildlife Fund.

Illegally logged wood shows up in the United States in everyday products such as bookshelves and picture frames.

Some cleared forestlands are turned into pulpwood plantations, with the pulp used in toilet tissue, paper towels, and other supermarket goods, said Linda Walker, director of the global forest and trade project for WWF. Others are converted to palm oil plantations, a surging agricultural sector in several nations.

The palm oil flows from these suppliers into global supply chains that end on supermarket shelves—in foods such as bread, cookies, and margarine, and along drugstore aisles in health and beauty products including makeup, skin creams, and shampoo.

“A lot of consumers may not realize that palm oil is an ingredient in many products we put on or in our bodies every day,” Walker said.

Soybean agriculture for livestock feed is another major driver of forest destruction, according to the report. Little if any of this soy ends up in the U.S. food supply, however, as the U.S. is itself a leading soy exporter.

The report identified 11 forest preservation hot spots spread across four continents—South America, Africa, Australia, and Southeast Asia—as well as in the archipelago nations of Indonesia and Papua New Guinea.

The Amazon rainforest of South America is at greatest risk. “If recent deforestation trends continue, more than a quarter of the Amazon will be treeless by 2030,” says the report.

Sumatra, Indonesia, is also at high risk. This island possesses “some of the richest and most diverse forests in the world,” the report notes, “but more than half have been destroyed, and what remains is at risk from land clearing by new settlers or for commercial plantations of palm oil, rubber, or pulpwood.”

WWF is calling for stronger, more coordinated actions by governments, investors, corporations, and consumers to save the world’s remaining forests and restore degraded forestland.

“The industries can continue to exist and supply jobs, but they need to take ending deforestation more seriously,” Walker said. If they don’t, forest destruction will continue to drive wild animal and plant species toward extinction, she said, as well as worsen the effects of climate change.

About 20 percent of heat-trapping carbon emissions worldwide are due to deforestation, as burning forests to clear land for agriculture creates carbon pollution and decreases the amount of trees, plants, and soil available to suck up and store carbon from the atmosphere.

Forest loss has also been implicated in the spread of infectious diseases such as malaria, Ebola, and bird flu, as deforestation thrusts people and once-isolated animal species closer together.

But the situation is still reversible, Walker said. “We believe that there’s something everybody can do to be part of the solution. Consumers, through every product they purchase, can be part of the solution if they’re asking the right questions,” she said.

Consumers seeking responsibly harvested wood and paper can look for Forest Stewardship Council–endorsed products, Walker said, a long-standing certification that requires suppliers to promote the long-term health and survival of forests.

But finding products free of destructive palm oil isn’t so simple, Walker said, “because those certification standards haven’t been around as long as FSC.” Two potential resources include the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil and the Consumer Goods Forum.

“More and more companies are making commitments to get irresponsibly produced palm oil out of their supply chains,” Walker said. The next step is for consumers and investors to hold them accountable. To that end, WWF is part of a collaboration called Supply Change, an online clearinghouse for information on how well companies are fulfilling such promises.

“The bottom line for us: There’s positive momentum, and there’s still a lot that needs to be done,” Walker said. “We feel optimistic that all these entities coming together can reduce deforestation globally and protect the forests and species that our organization is focused on protecting.”