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Environment

Shopping to save the rainforest: too good to be true?

It's a compelling idea: simply buy a cool t-shirt, and protect the rainforest in the process. But can consumers really clear their conscience based on companies' green promises?

These days, many businesses make an enticing promise to the conscientious consumer: every crate of beer, every bottle of water, every pound of coffee you buy can save the rainforest. The Earth's forests do urgently need our protection, with 130,000 square kilometers (81,000 square miles) disappearing annually - more than the entire area of Switzerland and Austria combined. But can this strategy really help save the globe's green lung?

Thomas Murray is one businessman who tries to make good on this promise. A father in his mid-50s, Murray founded the lifestyle label "Cuipo" in 2008. The business takes its name from a species of tree in the Amazon that grows up to 60 meters high, and is so massive that it is often the only plant left standing after a forest has been cleared.

"Every Cuipo product saves a square meter of the rainforest," said Murray. The idea for the forest conservation label came to the businessman on a helicopter flight to a private business meeting in Panama.

A Cuipo advertisement of a young woman with a skateboard.

Lifestyle label Cuipo wants to save South America's rainforests with the purchasing power of its customers

"I noticed what appeared at first to be a massive golf course. Then I realized these swaths of empty land were the aftermath of deforestation - so I knew I had to act," he recalled.

Skateboards, wristwatches, stylish t-shirts and refillable aluminum drinking bottles are already available online and in selected stores in the US.

But Cuipo is not yet turning a profit, and is funded through sponsorship. Murray wants to change that by expanding - not for profit but to protect the forest, he says. His vision is that in "10 years nobody wants to buy products if they do not save the rainforest."

Preventing the forest from falling into the 'wrong hands'

Murray's dream of using buying power to save the rainforest isn't new. Ecologically-minded consumers can also do their bit by purchasing from a growing range of sustainable-certified beer and coffee, for instance.

Coffee beans certified by the environmental protection organization Rainforest Alliance are grown by small and medium-scale farmers in plantations near forests. Large-scale forest clearance is taboo under the scheme, and coexistence with local flora and fauna is a prerequisite for certification. Surrounding trees are used as trellises and for shade.

Coffee beans on coffee powder (Source: ©HLPhoto)

As a product of the forest, sustainable coffee can directly contribute to forest protection

Over the past few years, the worldwide export value of coffee has hovered at around $20 billion (18 million euros) and its production is the economic backbone of the Asian, African and South American countries that are also home to the world's major forests. That greener coffee cultivation benefits the forest make basic sense. But how can buying Cuipo product such as t-shirts, pacifiers or reusable aluminum bottles protect the forest?

Murray's approach is to buy up tracts of the Amazon "before the other guys come into play." By "other guys," the green entrepreneur means palm oil plantations, oil drilling companies and cattle ranchers whose businesses involve clearing vast swaths of forest. Much land is owned by private individuals, who often don't care where the cash comes from.

"If we pay them more, they are happy - super happy," said Murray.

Do green promises pay off?

Klaus Schenck, a forest expert from the German branch of nonprofit Rainforest Rescue, favors a different approach: political influence instead of advertising claims.

Photo: People demonstrate against rainforest destruction with placards (Source:Rettet den Regenwald e.V.)

Unsexy but effective: activists from environmental organization Rainforest Rescue focus on petitions and demonstrations to protect the forest

"Forest protection is a state task that the governments, authorities and inhabitants of the rainforest countries have to take on, and not one for some Western companies that want to clean up their image," said Schenck.

His strategy seems to be bearing fruit. Schenck told DW his organization successfully used legal means in 2014 to gain an order against logging in one of its project areas in Peru.

Schenck welcomed companies working for environmental protection, but also raised doubts.

"Much of the raw material for these firms' products comes from the rainforest," said Schenck, while also acknowledging that Cuipo's refillable aluminum bottles are more environmentally friendly than buying plastic bottles every day.

The aluminum bottles last for many years if cared for properly. Still, pointed out Schenck, it's possible rainforest is being destroyed for bottles such as those sold by Cuipo. "Bauxite, the raw material for aluminium, is mined in the middle of the Amazon rainforest," he added.

According to Rainforest Rescue, 1 square kilometer of rainforest is cleared annually for "Porto Trombetas," one of the largest bauxite mines in the middle of the Amazon. To make up for the forest lost through this mine, Murray would have to sell around one million Cuipo products. Manufacturing these products in turn requires precious resources such as crude oil or cotton - or bauxite in the case of aluminum bottles.

Aerial view of a hydroelectric dam on Teles Pires river in Brazil (Source: Reuters)

A dam being constructed 2013 on the Teles Pires river, one of the Amazon River's largest tributaries. 'Aluminum refineries devour huge amounts of energy.

Cuipo's aluminium bottles may be reusable, and completely recyclable at the end of their lives. But recycled aluminium currently only covers around one-third of the worldwide demand for the metal. Even if all Cuipo bottles were recycled, intensive bauxite mining would continue.

Regardless of whether Cuipo's bottles contain bauxite from Brazil's Amazon rainforests, customers cannot be 100 percent sure whether the environmental benefits outweigh the drawbacks.

Ownership doesn't stop illegal logging

According to Schenck, buying tracts of rainforest to protect it is also not as simple as it sounds.

"From a western standpoint, it may seem logical: I buy a piece of forest, and that belongs to me, and nobody comes in to cut down trees. But in many southern countries, that's not the case because there are unresolved ownership issues - few controls or corruption," said Schenck.

The situation frequently leads to illegal deforestation, which is often difficult to detect. Schenck discovered this recently during a Rainforest Rescue campaign in Peru, when NASA satellite images showed the time of occurrence and extent of deforestation. "But when the trees are already on the ground, it's too late," said the forest expert.

Schenck's organization is making efforts to halt illegal logging by cooperating with local communities.

"It's important to have people on the ground who support us. Particularly those who continue to live in and with the forest have to be included," added Schenck.

Still, Murray is as calm about criticism over sustainability of his products - and the effectiveness of his efforts to protect the rainforest - as he does with his income gap. It will be 2016 before Cuipo breaks even. Until then, supporters will continue to finance forest protection.

Cuipo plans to raise $1 to $2 million to plough into marketing and hire new employees, including local rangers to protect purchased forest areas. Aerial monitoring of the forests is also planned.

"We're not perfect, but we're trying our very best to get there," said Murray.

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