Converting Less Rainforest into Toilet Paper

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Collage of deforestation images by adriansalamandre.

Score one for the strategy of pressuring corporations to act now for environmental sustainability. Whereas governments often meet, greet, and retreat on big issues like deforestation, environmentalists have convinced a major Asian pulp company to stop scalping the rainforests of Indonesia to produce paper and packaging.

You’ve got to reserve a healthy skepticism for stories like this. Will an agreement really hold? But it is indeed significant that Asia Pulp & Paper has not only promised to halt operations in Indonesia’s natural forests, but has actually begun pulling out its employees from these areas. To monitor its compliance with the agreement, the company has hired the European nonprofit Forest Trust, which reportedly deserves most of the credit for negotiating the deal.

Up to now, the pulp company had derived a fifth of its Indonesian wood from rainforests. Meanwhile, so many trees and peat bogs burn in the country that Indonesia ranks among the world’s top emitters of carbon dioxide.

Stopping one corporation’s contribution to deforestation is a good example of what activists and engaged consumers can accomplish when they pressure large companies. In a democracy, it’s proven hard to get voters to care so much about environmental threats that their concerns influence elections. But if a company loses even a small percentage of its sales because of bad publicity over unsustainable behavior, financial markets can give it an immediate thrashing.

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Deforestation in Riau Province, Indonesia (Wakx via flickr).

WWF has recently taken on the strategy of identifying and pressuring the few dozen large companies that control the markets for the world’s 15 most environmentally important commodities, including soy, cotton, sugar, palm oil, beef, and farmed shrimp. And groups like Big Green Purse work to educate consumers that their own purchases can steer corporations to better environmental behavior.

This approach can yield behavior even more surprising than the pulp company’s decision to abandon the rainforest. The American Sustainable Business Council, an alliance of dozens of U.S. business associations, has broken with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and countless other corporate groups to oppose the controversial Keystone XL Pipeline and to enlist its supporters to join a February 17 rally against the project in Washington, D.C.

Not that the world will soon be sustainable thanks to businesses acting without government guidance or leadership. We can hardly expect that. The world’s governments still need to be pressured to take the kind of policy action that only they can to stave off an overheated and under-resourced world.

As if to prove that a lot of corporate behavior stays decidedly unsustainable—and that businesses can be pretty sensitive to criticism about that—a strange little drama played out, or actually was missing in action, during the Super Bowl last Sunday. Coca-Cola, which has agreed to work to conserve water resources in communities while bottling its product, was spared a creative and comical jab at its bottle waste when CBS refused to air a spot produced by SodaStream to promote its bottle-free soda system.

“We could have saved 500 million bottles on Game Day alone,” the narrator of the unaired-ad intones. “If you love the bubbles, set them free.”

A sustainability marketer might add, “If you love the Earth, go to corporations and demand change.” Consumer and activist pressure might not get us to a sustainable society, but it can at least help.


Robert Engelman is President of the Worldwatch Institute and author of “Beyond Sustainababble,” in the upcoming State of the World 2013.

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