By Lindsay Seventko, American Forests

Palm oil plantation deforestation
Palm oil plantation deforestation in Indonesia. Credit: glennhurowitz via Flickr.

Trying to choose the most forest-friendly options while shopping can be confusing and exhausting. If you’re trying to protect forests through your purchases but aren’t sure where to begin, here’s a simple list of do’s and don’ts when you’re out shopping for clothing and groceries.

ForestFriendly Fashion

Every year, 100 million trees are cut down for fabric production alone, and tons of toxic waste are dumped into rivers and streams. The World Bank estimates that 20 percent of all industrial pollution stems from the production of fabrics. Some of the most important forests in the world are those most affected by the textile industry — northern boreal forests, coastal temperate rainforests and tropical rainforests.

Don’t worry, choosing a forest-friendly wardrobe doesn’t have to mean giving up a fashionable wardrobe — many trendsetting brands are prioritizing the switch to more sustainable fabrics. Nevertheless, shopping for forest-friendly clothing can be confusing as there are countless contradictory opinions on which fabrics are the most environmentally friendly and plenty of misleading marketing campaigns. Here are a few guidelines to get you started in the right direction.

  1. Rayon is one of the worst offenders in forest-damaging fabrics, as it comes directly from wood products that often don’t have verified supply chains and may use pulp from illegally logged endangered or ancient forests, which is then processed using hazardous chemicals. Many consumers don’t realize that bamboo, typically marketed as a sustainable, safe fabric, is actually rayon. Created by processing with toxic chemicals, bamboo fabrics don’t actually have any of the organic matter identity of the bamboo that was used as the raw material and are instead a highly processed conglomerate of highly toxic chemicals. Aside from rayon, avoid mixed fabrics as they are nearly impossible to recycle or repurpose after their wearable life.
  2. Optimize your forest-friendly purchase by picking a garment that has already been recycled! Many brands, including higher fashion labels now offer recycled polyester made out of repurposed water bottles or old garments that make like-new, beautiful fabrics without the entire impact of creating a new piece of fabric. If you can’t find the piece you want in a recycled fabric, prioritize a first-generation garment that is created out of a single material, so that it can be recycled once its wear life is over.
  3. Pick organic cotton, or if possible hemp, which requires half the land per ton to grow than cotton does, which decreases the demand for deforestation, and also uses 50 percent less water than cotton does.

ForestFriendly Food

  1. Pam oil, found in 40-50 percent of household products, contributes to 300 football-field-sized swaths of rainforest being cut down every hour, which often requires the clearing of old-growth forests and the displacement of subsistence farmers. This deforestation has also contributed to a 90 percent loss of orangutan habitat, declared a conservation emergency by the UN. To help break this pattern of deforestation, avoid consumer products that include palm oil as a base (like many cleaning supplies, prepackaged food and cooking oils). Instead, shop for brands that don’t use palm oil, and cook with a less damaging option like olive oil.
  2. The average coffee drinker consumes three cups of coffee a day, and this daily habit requires the annual harvest of 18 coffee trees to produce those three cups. This demand encourages farmers to slash and burn large swaths of the Amazon rainforest in order to grow the coffee shrubs, which increases water insecurity and escalates nutrient loss until the soil is infertile and the farmer is forced to move on to a new patch of rainforest. Similarly, chocolate is often planted under direct sunlight for ease and harvest maximization, but can also be grown in the shade. In fact, 50-60 percent of biodiversity loss in Papua New Guinea and Madagascar has been attributed to habitat loss from cocoa plantation deforestation. In order to encourage forest-friendly practices, try out shade-grown coffee blends and chocolate products grown by farmers who plant underneath the rainforest canopy.
  3. Let’s face it — many people find meat delicious. Conversations about the negative effects of meat consumption inevitably leave people uncomfortable. But, the fact remains: to save more forests, buy less animal products. Eighty percent of deforestation in Brazil can be attributed to the demands of cattle ranching, and 33 percent of the world’s entire cultivated land goes toward producing animal feed. As the earth’s population only continues to increase, the demands of agriculture threaten to exponentially increase deforestation rates. In this context, eating less meat would allow more land to directly go towards growing food for direct human consumption. If you aren’t up for going vegetarian, consider cutting meat out of a specified number of meals per week.

As forest conservation becomes more of a pressing issue around the world, it has become easier to shop for forest-friendly alternatives to standard products. Making a few switches in your typical purchasing patterns can discourage businesses who are the highest deforestation offenders and be a small step towards protecting forests.